I’ve seen “[title of show]“ three times now. The first time, back in 2006, was the original Off-Broadway version at the Vineyard Theatre. The next two times have been thanks to StageWorks Fresno, which produced this trippy, self-referential musical about two friends writing a musical first in 2010 at the Severance Theatre, and now, a new version at the Dan Pessano Theatre.
What strikes me after three viewings is this: I’m amazed how much I end up rooting for the “show within a show” to succeed.
Even though we all know the outcome even before “[title of show]” begins — this tiny production with four characters and a keyboard did make it all the way to Broadway, back in 2008 — I’ve gotten wrapped up each time in the excitement and tension of cheering the show on despite almost impossibly long odds. The show’s creators, Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen, make the leap from what could be a smarmy, cloying exercise in self-indulgence (“look at us as we impishly chronicle our artistic journey!”) into something that feels bigger than two guys plus their two gal friends riding an express train to Musical Theater Geekdom. There’s a freshness of spirit, a warmth and appeal to the artist in us all, that transcends the fluff.
Director Joel Abels finds the upbeat crispness in the show while still milking it for all its warmth.
The new StageWorks Fresno production is deftly staged and beautifully sung. Still, if I were to square it off against the 2010 version in a cage match, I’d give the nod by a nose to the earlier version.
There was something extra special about the 2010 cast that just seemed to perfectly click in terms of chemistry. (Only one of the actors, Taylor Abels, returns from that original cast.) There are some fine performances this time around, but they don’t mesh together quite as well.
“[title of show]” is built on the experiences of Jeff (Steven Braswell) and Hunter (Daniel Rodriguez), struggling New York theater types. When they decide on a lark to write an original piece to enter in the fast-approaching New York Musical Theatre Festival, they start “creating” it before the audience’s eyes. (The first song is titled, aptly enough, “Untitled Opening Number.”) Hunter writes the book, and Jeff pens the music and lyrics. They soon draft two friends — Heidi (Taylor Abels, reprising her 2010 performance), and Susan (the terrific Melinda Parrett, a member of Actors Equity) — to join in the journey.
Braswell is in fine voice as Jeff, and he brings a sweet, amiable presence to the role. I wasn’t as taken with Rodriguez’s take on Hunter, the character in the show with the most bite. He plays the goofy bits with happy precision, but his interpretation of Hunter’s slight surly streak just didn’t connect for me. (I saw the show at its final preview performance.)
Taylor Abels is a smooth and sure Heidi, belting out the show’s big solo piece, “A Way Back to Then,” with thrilling aplomb. And Parrett is a standout, with her “Die Vampire, Die!” number — which captures the show’s welcoming theme that everyone has personal demons to exorcise — a highlight. (Just watch Parrett rhyme “in a whoosh” with “baba ganoush” and then toss her head slightly in a moment of perfect self-aware irreverence.) And Laurie King, as the keyboardist “Mary,” offers a droll counterpart to the hijinks on stage with her occasional interjections.
The move from the Severance Theatre to the more intimate Pessano Theatre bumps this production up in terms of production design, with the scenic design (a sort of nondescript office-slash-apartment-like interior) by Joel Abels and Mark Reidel) providing a generic setting that still seems snappy. I found some of Jennifer Sullivan’s moving lights distracting. Kaye Migaki’s choreography is a treat — just silly enough at times without going over the top.
There are scads of insider theater references in “[title of show],” which obviously makes it a favorite of hardcore musical theater fans. But you don’t have to know who Alice Ripley is to enjoy the play’s humor or its broader message of overcoming the creative odds. (Be aware that the show is very much for mature audiences in terms of language and themes.)
Though I might have quibbles here and there with the show, StageWorks continues to deliver top-notch quality theater, and this production is no exception. It’s a “[show]” that sparkles with wit, life and heart.
And don’t forget to listen for the “Dan Pessano” reference, which is a treat coming in the theater bearing his name. (How cool is that?) The original character of Heidi, played by Good Company Players alum Heidi Blickenstaff, slipped that reference in there, and it’s stayed ever since.
Pictured: Taylor Abels, left, Steven Braswell, Daniel Rodriguez and Melinda Parrett in “[title of show.]”
Below: Here’s a video I made about the production.