Traditionalists, that is, long-time Paper Mill Playhouse subscribers, as well as one-show-at-a-time ticket buyers, have a surprise, actually a treat, in store for them with the current production of “The Other Josh Cohen.” Although it garnered hugely enthusiastic reviews and had a short run Off Broadway in 2012, it is still relatively unknown in the canon of musicals and represents an adventurous choice for this 1,000-seat theater.
Noteworthy is how beautifully and effectively this relatively small-scale farcical musical with a big heart fills up the stage. Although Valentine’s Day has come and gone, it plays an important role in this funny, touching, clever, and musically lively (yes, all of that) ode to pathetic but lovable mensch Josh Cohen. He’s a guy who just can’t get a break, make a good living, or find the right woman.
It is the work of David Rossmer and Steve Rosen, who not only collaborated on the book, music, and lyrics but also share the honor and rewards of playing the role(s) of Josh Cohen; that is as a before and as a now Josh Cohen and often together at the same time. Confused? Good. Because so is disheartened Josh who can’t understand why he is so unlucky in love and why his life seems to be nothing but a torrent of rejections and disappointments.
But while you may suspect, or perhaps already know, that this is a two-person show about one person, it actually has a slew of peripheral characters. They are enthusiastically portrayed by the five excellent on-stage musicians, each of whom not only has the task of keeping up with the many changes of wigs and costumes, but also with the always extremely witty and very likable music.
One change from the hurricane-curtailed Off-Broadway run is one addition to the original multi-talented five that include Kate Wetherhead (percussion, “a Lot of People”), Vadim Feichtner (keyboards, “a Bunch of People”), Hannah Elless (drums, “A Bunch of Other People”), and Ken Triwuch (bass, “The Rest of the People”). She is Cathryn Salmone, who plays “lots of instruments and “At Least One More Person.”
I suppose adding one more performer to populate the large Paper Mill stage is good idea, as the New York City bachelor apartment setting, created by new designer David Korins, is mostly empty. It has just been robbed.
The fun begins as the audience arrives to encounter a hooded burglar as he proceeds to strip the apartment clean of all its items, as well as remove all the furniture including the rug and even a poster on the wall of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The only items left for Josh to find on his return are a Neil Diamond CD and an empty case of a porn video. Of course, we can see the band’s instruments spread across the stage. Diamond’s presence isn’t confined to the CD as a trap door and stage elevator allows for a very remarkable and comical appearance.
I should mention another major holdover: Ted Sperling, whose savvy direction (kudos to be shared with musical stager Andrew Palermom) makes admirable use of the Paper Mill’s stage. The situation unfolds as a series of short skits and progresses through the narrative supplied by guitar-strumming Josh (Rossmer) and the past angst and actions of the more pro-active Josh (Rosen). His actions reveal the plight of a very nice, morally upright, if maybe a tad too chubby, guy who is simply looking for love. But his fate and fortune are suddenly changed when he receives a check for $56,000 from Ida Cohen in Florida. Does Josh even remember Ida, maybe a distant relative?
Poor as he is, he questions whether he is the rightful Josh Cohen to whom the check has been made out. This leads him on an adventurous inquiry to make sure that the check he now holds and wants desperately to cash may have been a mistake.
His quest for an answer is revealed through some earnest soul-searching, as well as by his comical encounters with flighty women, a lesbian neighbor/member of a rock band, nutty family members who offer inane advice, and a Russian landlord who insists the apartment is burgle-proof. They all contribute delightfully to Josh’s dilemma and to the various musical textures of the melodic, predominantly soft rock score.
Much of the charm of this slender but totally satisfying musical stems from the easy rapport established between Rosen and Rossmer who, both dressed identically in plaid shirts and jeans, interact as the same Josh but with one year and one mustache separating them. Their affection for each other is as winning as our affection for their 85-minute creation.
The Other Josh Cohen, Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn. Through Sunday, March 16. $27 to $98. 973-376-4343 or www.papermill.org.