Volume 21, Number 14 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | AUGUST 15-21, 2008

Photo by Carol Rosegg

Heidi Blickenstaff as Heidi (top, left), Jeff Bowen as Jeff (bottom, left), Susan Blackwell as Susan (top, right) & Hunter Bell as Hunter (bottom, right) in the original Broadway musical “[title of show].”

‘[title of show]’ perfectly tailored for New Yorkers

[title of show]
Music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen
Book by Hunter Bell
Directed by Michael Berresse
Lyceum Theatre
149 West 45th St.
(212) 239-6200; titleofshow.com

By Scott Harrah

This clever, original musical comedy was first produced more than two years ago off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in the East Village and won an Obie. Its transfer to Broadway has been anticipated with much fanfare, but does it live it up to all the hype? That depends on the theatergoer because this is a show strictly reserved for the enjoyment of theater-industry insiders, anyone who’s ever wanted to work in theater, and Manhattan theatergoers in general. This is a show made for and about New Yorkers because there are so many references to neighborhood hangouts in Chelsea, Brooklyn hipsters, and other local cultural nomenclature that the average tourist simply will not get many of the jokes.

The only-in-New-York notations and gleefully shameless name-dropping of places and personalities permeate nearly every minute of the show. Anyone familiar with Chelsea restaurants, the gay scene on 8th Avenue, NY 1 theater critic Roma Torre, Broadway stars like Kerry Butler (“Xanadu”), Marin Mazzie (“Spamalot”), and Tony-winning stage divas Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley and Christine Ebersole will find the show hilarious. Many of the aforementioned actresses make hysterical vocal cameos on the characters’ answering machine, turning down the aspiring playwrights’ offers to star in their show if it’s ever produced. “I wish you well and I would like very much for you not to contact me ever again,” Patti LuPone snaps with caustic verve.

Other off-Broadway shows with a downtown New York sensibility that later transferred to the Great White Way—such as “Rent” and “Avenue Q”—were accessible enough to please mainstream audiences, but “[title of show]” is a musical only locals will appreciate and savor, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell play themselves with aplomb: two struggling would-be playwrights who want to submit an original musical manuscript to a New York theater festival for consideration, but have just three weeks to get the job done. They are not sure what to call their magnum opus, so they decide on “[title of show]” because they don’t know what else to write in the blank space on the festival’s submission form. Coming up with a title is not the only obstacle they face; filling the blank pages of their manuscript is a grueling task indeed. The trouble is that they’re too preoccupied with watching old “Wonder Woman” episodes on DVD and surfing for Internet porn to truly focus on the writing process. Their friends Heidi (Heidi Blickenstaff) and Susan (Susan Blackwell), two wannabe actresses, decide to help out. Onstage keyboardist and music director Larry Pressgrove provides music, and there’s a cute line about how arrangements were made with the union so he could actually talk at one point in the show.

As the three-week deadline looms to send off their manuscript, Jeff and Hunter panic and decide to write a play about their own frustrations about completing an original musical comedy. The first half hour of the show moves quickly and is consistently delightful. Some of the highlights include a song called “Monkeys and Playbills” in which Playbills from some of Broadway’s worst shows ever, such as “Carrie: The Musical,” are projected onto a screen at the back of the stage.

However, most of the songs, such as “Two Nobodies in New York,” “An Original Manuscript” and “Die, Vampire, Die” poke fun at their procrastination and childhood dreams of making it big as New York playwrights. They think up nonsensical dream sequences for the play that don’t always work, but are whimsical enough to get plenty of laughs.

The latter half of the one-act show contains some updated, real-life information about how the show managed to transfer to Broadway, but the narrative becomes awkward and drags at times. Still, the gifted cast never fails to entertain, and Michael Berresse directs everyone with seamless precision and timing.

“[title of show]” is definitely a “tour de farce” for drama aficionados, and has many genuinely truthful and witty things to say about the creative process and the harsh realities of making it in the New York theater world. With only four characters played by relatively unknown actors, a sparse set, and a story mostly comprised of show-biz bon mots, it is questionable whether such an intimate show that did phenomenally well downtown will find an audience in the competitive Broadway market, which is saturated with big-budget musicals featuring well-known stars. Regardless, there’s enough talent and insight behind “[title of show]”to please anyone who has dreamed of writing for or performing on the New York stage.

 





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