Christopher Fitzgerald and Jeremy Shamos in Gutenberg! The Musical!
Despite a paper-thin plot, Gutenberg delivers
By Scott Harrah
Corny, silly, historically inaccurate, shamelessly politically incorrect and undeniably hilarious, the two-man spoof Gutenberg! The Musical! is more like a long stand-up comedy routine or cabaret act than an off-Broadway musical. Bud Davenport (Christopher Fitzgerald) and Doug Simon (Jeremy Shamos) play two wannabe Broadway show writers doing a reading of their purported musical biography of printing-press inventor Johann Gutenberg for what they hope is a theater full of potential producers. Bud and Dougs vocal abilities are as paper-thin as the plot of their convoluted tale, but they more than make up for their shortcomings with charm and wit. The show, which originated at Chelseas Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and had a successful run last winter at the Jeremy Street Theater in London, was mounted at the New York Musical Theater Festival in September, 59E59 Theater in December, and received such critical and audience acclaim that it has been brought to the Actors Playhouse in the West Village for a limited engagement through March 25th.
The narrative is as inane and intentionally insipid as anything by Mel Brooks, and the wacky skewering of Gutenbergs life story has all the campy elements of one of Brookss mock retellings of history, complete with tasteless Nazi and Jewish jokes, sexist humor about the female anatomy, and absurd songs. According to Bud and Doug, Gutenberg grew up in the Medieval German hamlet of Schlimmer and got his start working as a wine presser. He was dumbfounded by the high rate of illiteracy in the town. To illustrate just how bad things are, Bud and Doug act out a scene in which a womans baby dies because she cant read a prescription bottle and mistakenly gives her sick child jellybeans instead of medicine. (The two wear a multitude of baseball caps with peoples names written across the front to let us know when theyre portraying a different character.) Gutenberg falls in love with his assistant, a blonde airhead named Helvetica (just like the typeface wink, wink). She works as a grape stomper, has large breasts, and not much in the brain department. Her show-stopping ballad is all about how she cant read words or Gutenberg himself. He soon has an epiphany and realizes that he could turn his wine press into a printing press so that everyone will have more access to printed literature and, thus, learn to read.
Theres just one problem: only monks in the local monastery can read, and they want to keep it that way so that only they can read the Bible and interpret it for the masses. Although there may be a shred of historical truth to this, its doubtful that monks in the Middle Ages had electric pencil sharpeners, but Bud and Doug love to throw in such nonsensical details for a laugh. Along the way, the two lampoon everything from over-the-top Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals to anti-Semitism. (One of the characters is actually called Anti-Semitic Flower Girl, and shes certainly nothing like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.)
Although the humor is strictly lowbrow schlock, it is never dull and always clever, and Fitzgerald and Shamos do a superb job of portraying the many different characters. The only problem here is that, for a 90-minute farce, there really isnt a need to break the story into two acts. But since Bud and Doug comment on the futility and disappointing aspects of second acts in musical theater, its all part of the show anyway. Gutenberg! The Musical! will thrill anyone who loves the American musical theater and isnt afraid to see it lovingly satirized.