Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Babes Off-Broadway

The talented cast of [title of show].

It's hard not to like [title of show], the little musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical, which is now being presented in a smart, slick production by SpeakEasy Stage.

But it's also hard to like it a lot. Basically, it's the little show that could (it made it to Broadway, briefly), but isn't great, only pretty good.

Then again, I'm not really its target audience, even though it's gayer than the locker room at the Ice Capades. You see, I'm not a fan of artistic formats in and of themselves. I only like good plays, and good symphonies, and good ballets. I don't like the bad plays and bad symphonies and bad ballets just because they're plays and symphonies and ballets.

But fans of musicals seem to just looooove musicals, regardless of whether they're good or bad - the form speaks to them more than the content does. I find this syndrome very, very weird - and it's really kind of the antithesis of what I do as a critic. Yet I'm constantly being told that it's the new normal.

So, duty requires that I admit that if you are this kind of person, you will adore [title of show]. You will eat it up; indeed, you and the show will become as one; you probably already are as one.

If, however, you are only mildly narcissistic and insecure, you'll find [title of show] kind of a grind as it begs, borrows and steals its way onto Broadway, even though it's obviously an empty shell, stuffed with self-aware Chelsea attitude, but essentially tune- and plot-free. Things even get slightly irritating, as the cast "rebels" against the changes that soul-sucking producers keep suggesting, in a desperate bid to hang onto the integrity of their vision.

Only what "integrity" might that be? Because here's the not-so-secret about [title of show] - its concept is a [crock of shit]. The show's supposed hook is that everything about its own creation pops up verbatim in its own action, in "musical-vérité" style. “So everything I say from now on could actually be in our show?’’ composer Jeff Bowen asks writer Hunter Bell in an early scene - and dude, it's like that exact line shows up in the show! Isn't that awesome???

Only hold on a minute - everyone with a friend downtown knows that's not the case. [title of show] pretends to be the story of four faithful friends putting together a millennial Babes in Arms in just three and a half weeks, and then driving the show all the way to the Great White Way - only one of those original friends, "Stacia," left the show early due to other commitments, and wound up edited out completely, and replaced by "Heidi." So where does that put us vis-à-vis the "verbatim" dialogue, I wonder? Suddenly the meta's not really "meta" so much as good old-fashioned schmaltz at one remove.

But you know, even if it's a con job, the show is funny, and it's certainly of sociological interest, as it offers an almost clinical portrait of Gen-Y entitlement (and how manipulation of the Internet along with a strong dose of generational attitude can inflate a show's reputation). The creators of [title of show] can't really write a decent song (perhaps because Bowen wrote the lyrics weeks before the music, another fact elided in the script), but they can riff on the meaninglessness of pop culture (and their own lives) with the best of 'em.

Of course why, precisely, we should believe that their day jobs are making them "die inside," or that their internal critics (who you think kind of have a point) should be "vampires," is never explained - because that would be awkward - but these transparently self-serving tropes at least lead to some clever asides. Which is really the show's whole and only point. Still, what looms over the enterprise - even the show's brief day in the sun on Broadway - is that its creators wound up writing songs for Disney Cruise Lines, which sounds like a natural niche for them, and where I guess they're working on [title of boat]. Somehow, however, I get the impression that gig is not supposed to be soul-destroying, although I've no idea why not.

But I also have to admit SpeakEasy, and director Paul Daigneault, manage to sell the hell out of this musical's mild virtues. The company's four stars - Jordan Ahnquist, Joe Lanza, Val Sullivan, and Amy Barker - are all engaging performers, and if none are great singers or dancers, well they don't have to be. Lanza is the comic standout as Hunter (the writer gave himself all the show's best lines), although Sullivan, after perhaps bringing a bit too much weird to bear on the admittedly-weird "Susan," does give Lanza a run for his money once she's settled into her own brand of sardonic quirk. Barker offers a few more recognizably-human notes as the secretly-vulnerable Heidi (plus she's got the best pipes), while Ahnquist is the energetic engine of the group, and also looks the best with his shirt off.

What's most striking about the show, however, is its production. Eric Levenson's set, Seághan McKay's projections, Charles Schoonmaker's costumes and Jeff Adelberg's lighting all cohere into a sophisticated yet "casual" look that serves the material perfectly. So we get to feast our eyes on yet another SpeakEasy design triumph. And I don't mean that ironically.

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