Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Anti-Musical! The Musical!

Watching Gutenberg! The Musical! (left, at the New Rep through Oct. 26), it's sometimes hard to fight the feeling that the "anti-musical" - the scrappy little show dreamed up in somebody's basement that parodies the musical form - is rapidly becoming as predictable as its target. It's not that Gutenberg! (which was dreamed up in the basement of Scott Brown and Anthony King), is bad, exactly, it's that we can see almost every joke in it coming well before it lands (in fact, we're practically out there on the runway guiding it in). And is that any surprise? Every aspect of the Broadway musical by now has been deconstructed to its foundations; the pickings for original satire are pretty slim, and Brown and King don't really uncover any new comic gold. Still, if you haven't seen Urinetown, Bat Boy, The Drowsy Chaperone, The Producers, or [title of show], not to mention countless episodes of Saturday Night Live and South Park, I suppose Gutenberg! could still strike you as edgy and fresh.

To be fair, it does have some conceptual ambitions those other shows lack (as you might guess from the two exclamation points in its title). Its co-creators have not just the vulgar insincerity of musical tropes in their sights, but also the actual people behind them and the audience in front of them, not to mention the stupid, sappy dreams that feed them. Yes, Gutenberg! isn't just an anti-musical, it's also a meta-musical. The show's conceit is that it's a try-out, a reading of a new script by its creators, Bud and Doug, who wear every hat in the show (literally). Needless to say, Bud and Doug's enthusiasm for their project is in inverse proportion to its quality; to them, it's the greatest show ever, even though their choice of subject - the life and times of the inventor of the printing press - has no obvious theatrical potential. But this hardly fazes Bud & Doug; they simply import the dramatic clichés of the form wholesale, and the joke is not just their ham-fisted delivery, but the audience's presumed acceptance of their musical worldview. ("What is 'historical fiction'? It's fiction that's true," they inform us, and we sense we're expected to nod.) The show needs a serious theme, of course - so they pick the Holocaust (because Gutenberg lived in Germany); there has to be a romantic interest - so enter the lovelorn Helvetica (yes, she's named after the font). And what musical doesn't need a rock ballad, and a chorus line? Cluelessness is piled on stupidity as Bud and Doug grow ever more thrilled at the monster they're sewing together.

The trouble with this, however, is that you need at least a little wit to leaven all the dumb show in what is essentially an extended skit, and Gutenberg! doesn't have quite enough inspiration to cover its running time. Sometimes the clumsy non sequiturs do come together in clever ways - still, it's rather obvious the show began as a one-act and then was expanded beyond its natural length. And then there's the weird sense it gives you that somehow snark has become the new schmaltz. Gutenberg! is designed to comfort Williamsburg and Park Slope in precisely the same way that Phantom is designed to comfort Peoria; its knowing condescension is like a warm bath for us sophistos, so we can feel good about ourselves.

Still, the New Rep version always remains amusing, or nearly amusing, thanks to its stars, Brendan McNab and Austin Ku, who work so hard that you feel a little guilty for not liking the show more and want to make it up to them. McNab, of course, is a versatile local hero who has only recently begun to rake in the awards that long were his due; here, as the desperately dorky Bud, he's as frisky and resourceful as ever, even if I think there's a buried fuse in the character that McNab never quite lights (why else would he get all the Meat Loaf anthems and play the bug-eyed evil Monk?). Ku isn't really McNab's match when it comes to self-aware stage smarts, but his blankly innocent readings are perfect for Doug's glibly gay naïveté, and he's charming throughout (and has got the pipes to match McNab's). Director Stephen Nachamie knows how to keep things moving, so we never have to notice this soufflé isn't really rising, and Todd C. Gordon tickles the ivories effortlessly in any number of modes.

So what's not to like? Well, not much, I suppose - I just wish there were more to like, too.

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