[title of show] chronicles the writing of an original musical – itself. Starting with an idea from book writer Hunter Bell and composer/lyricist Jeff Bowen to write a musical about creating the actual musical they are writing (it’s very meta) to submit for the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004, Hunter and Jeff bring in their friends Heidi and Susan to be a part of the creative process. The play covers their discussions about their everyday lives in, out, and around the New York theatre scene while also examining the creative process and the struggle of creating art. After playing the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival, [title of show] enjoyed two runs off Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in 2006 (where I saw Avenue Q begin its life in 2003) before jogging uptown to Broadway in the fall of 2008.
I knew of but completely missed out on seeing the play in New York, but perhaps that was for the best; I doubt it could’ve been as engagingly performed or staged as CATCO’s production. Though [title of show] seems designed for a small performance space, it can’t be easy to keep things moving and visually interesting in the cabaret-like Studio Three at the Riffe Center, but director Joe Bishara does just that. Choreographer Liz Wheeler finds inventive ways to use the small space to her advantage, making the dancing and movement seem to be a natural extension of the moment, and lighting designer Curtis “Nitz” Brown’s lighting cues are spot-on and brilliant at separating the stage to evoke different locations while also using many different colors to reflect the mood. I wasn’t expecting as much real production when I entered this space (it’s my first time being in it), and I am impressed. I sat to the right of the stage, and I often found myself looking to the mirror along the wall behind the audience to see a different vantage point of the performers directly in front of me; it was like having two points of view from one seat, both valid and thrilling.
What I like about [title of show] is what it has to say about the creative process. The show reminds me of Sondheim’s song “Putting It Together” from Sunday in the Park With George, examining the struggle to be true to oneself while also taking financial aspects into consideration while creating art. Songs like “Die, Vampire, Die!” and “Change It, Don’t Change It” can speak not only to people in the theatre but to anyone in any field be it architecture or the culinary arts; we all have self doubt to fight against and that nagging insecurity that can derail our mission if we let it. I also enjoyed the deep catalog references to flop musicals like Henry, Sweet Henry and Hot September, and I encourage anyone interested in musicals that have gone awry to pick up a copy of Ken Mandlebaum’s Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops, a book that I’m positive the writers of [title of show] have on their shelves.
Jonathan Collura, who plays composer and lyricist Jeff Bowen, makes his CATCO debut here, but I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him perform around Columbus previously in tick, tick…BOOM! (Evolution) and Young Frankenstein (Imagine), and we often seem to attend the same performances of other shows. It’s interesting that Jonathan was in tick, tick…BOOM! as that show and [title of show] are cousins in that they both deal with the art of creating music for the theatre (covering the territory in very different ways); he played a composer in both plays, so is Amadeus in Jonathan’s future? I’m convinced he can pretty much do anything given the opportunity and the right team of co-stars. Every time I’ve seen him perform he disappears into his part and is completely believable, be it as an anguished aspiring songwriter turning thirty or as a mad (but musical) scientist. He has a character actor’s recognizable face combined with the stage presence and command of a lead. Jonathan could play a table or a couch and elicit applause, and I look forward to seeing where he pops up next.
Bradley Johnson as book writer Hunter Bell is sweet without being cloying, and he is adept at gathering up many of the laughs from the audience. When he is called a “procrastibator” (a word that I hope works its way into popular usage), he makes this “What – me?” expression that spreads into a knowing smile. The moment could be sleazy or distasteful with the wrong timing and approach, but Bradley doesn’t let that happen.
Annie Huckaba as Susan balances her role’s brattiness with being likable, and she can always be depended on to find the right tone in a pointed line to get the audience to laugh. Her initial mistrust of Heidi is explored humorously and honestly in the duet “What Kind of Girl Is She?,” a song to which I’m sure many women in the audience could relate, and her commanding lead in what becomes the ensemble number “Die, Vampire, Die!” brings the right energy at exactly the right time.
Elisabeth Zimmerman as Heidi is pretty without being obnoxious, and humble about her Broadway work without being too self deprecating. Though underwritten, Elisabeth finds a sweet spot to prance within and her affectionate nature feels real. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Quinton Jones as Larry, a role with few lines but demanding as he supplies all of the musical accompaniment for the show. Though the volume of his keyboard is set about three to six decibels too high in a few places and obscures a few lyrics, Quinton’s playing is professional without being sterile, his timing perfectly matching the cast. Or is it their singing that matches up with his playing? Well, whichever it is, it’s all done seamlessly.
It’s interesting to note the use of “tranny” and show titles that are topical to the time period of the play (2004-2008), and I’m glad no attempt has been made to update them. Though we now know “tranny” is not politically correct, and I doubt many people remember the short-lived Broadway musical Brooklyn (I saw it – and forgot it), for [title of show] to work it needs to remain as it is, representative of a specific time and place, even if some of the language may make us wince now or the references be too obscure for all but the hardened show queen to nod at in recognition. Whoops, is “show queen” wrong to say too? Well, I think I am one, so I’m giving myself a pass.
CATCO’s [title of show] is only limited by the source material, which at its best is insightful and witty, and at its worst is overlong and repetitive. I’m not sure if its expansion from a ninety-minute one act-er to a two act-er with intermission occurred when it finally moved to Broadway for its brief run in 2008, but I think it was an unfortunate misstep. While my friend and I felt the first act ran along nicely, the second act started to meander and not know when or how to end. I get how the show was constantly being updated as it went along to incorporate the Broadway transfer, but some tightening throughout would’ve helped quite a bit. Still, it’s an admirable piece with some memorable songs and an original message about the creative process. If at the end of the day it is a **/ star show with a ***/ star cast and production, that means that it’s still more than worth the visit and your time.
*** out of ****
[title of show] continues through to July 12th in Columbus, and more information can be found at http://catco.org/shows/2014-2015/title-of-show