Reminiscent of A Chorus Line, Merrily We Roll Along, and the movie Summer Stock, the 2006 musical [title of show], currently opening the new season of Kansas City’s always innovative Unicorn Theatre, is a lighthearted journey into the creative process.
Written by New Yorkers Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book), [title of show] brings to mind the 2002 screenplay of the film Adaptation. In that work, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman uses the show-within-a-show device as an easy way out of a creative dilemma. Yet whereas Kaufman’s surrealistic work comes off as a gimmicky, too-clever-by-half exercise, [title of show] seeks to explore some time-honored issues.
To wit: What does it take to create a Broadway musical? What are the limits and the pitfalls of the creative mind in such an endeavor? And what are the ground rules in a collaboration of creative minds? But beyond these weighty issues, [title of show] is a brisk, fun look at a quartet (quintet, including the onstage one-man band) of young, idealistic New Yorkers as they navigate their way through some treacherous waters.
Meet Hunter and Jeff (Unicorn alums Seth Golay and KC Comeaux), two gay New Yorkers yearning to put their artistic stamp on the musical theater stage. Hunter, a struggling cater-waiter/writer who thinks big, convinces Jeff, a fastidious web-designer/songwriter, to collaborate on an entry into musical theatre festival. The device frames the first-act action well by catapulting the two into a frenzy of creative activity.
Jeff frets over a suitable plot for the musical, most notably with the number “Monkeys and Playbills”, in which a series of Playbill program covers from past Broadway shows is projected onto framed areas of the unit set. A standout in these early scenes is the Hunter/Jeff duet “Part Of It All”, a gorgeous song in which the young men sing about their desire to be part of an established artistic community.
The Hunter/Jeff duo is rounded out by the additions of Heidi (the appealing and pixyish Jessalyn Kincaid) and Susan (a full-voiced Natalie Weaver), whom the guys pick as their female leads. The four personalities are well orchestrated—Heidi is hip and happy-go lucky, Susan is brassy and professional, Hunter is idealistic and naïve, and Jeff is exacting and fussy.
Several more songs flesh out the show’s creation, including “What Kind of Girl is She”, in which Heidi and Susan, and their egos, face off, and “Die Vampire Die”, where Susan instructs Jeff in the fine art of exorcising one’s artistic doubts.
Finally, the show is finished, sent in to the festival and chosen for presentation. The work proves popular enough to be sent for work shopping at a prestigious theater retreat, then receives a brief Off-Broadway run, elating everyone. But when nothing comes of all this, Hunter panics and contemplates softening some of his creation’s harsher edges to make it acceptable for a Broadway run.
Creative rancor among everyone ensues, including Larry (Anthony T. Edwards, musical director), the above-mentioned onstage, one-man band, who sits quietly at his keyboard providing precise, expressive accompaniment.
As mentioned, a clever use of the show-within-a-show trope oversees the narrative (almost becoming too cute at times), and well-placed blackouts, answering machine sound bites, insidery jabs and fourth-wall breaks abound, generally to good effect. Voices are uniformly terrific; I especially liked Natalie Weaver’s brassy mezzo-soprano.
Production values tend toward the uneven: That unit set—bare brick walls punctuated with a mannequin in eclectic garb—is meant to represent a bohemian New York existence, but it seems hastily put together and almost beside the point. And an otherwise good lighting design was marred during the performance I attended by a backdrop spot that kept inexplicably changing color (!).
Kudos must be given to director Missy Koonce, who has guided her cast through a focused hour and a half of musical activity—in [title of show] she’s given us an invigorating, enjoyable romp through the human creative mind. Not a bad way to kick off a 37th season.
[title of show] plays the Unicorn Theater through October 10. For tickets and more information visit the theater website.