There are certain storytelling rules that can be bent or broken when you’re dealing with a show-within-a-show. In terms of believability alone, it’s as if you’re given a free pass when characters spontaneously burst into song and dance, as they do in “The Great American Backstage Musical,” playing at Off-Broadstreet Theater through Saturday, April 3. The danger comes, however, when the script doesn’t commit completely to this idea and plays fast-and-loose with the nature of this weird musical world. In this case, the end result is a well-performed, well-directed production of a musical that confused and bewildered me; nonetheless, I found myself bizarrely and completely engaged in trying to figure out how, exactly, this underwritten and oddly constructed show worked.
Set in the early 1940s, TGABM starts with a cookie-cutter plot built around archetypal characters ripped and transplanted from the Hollywood heyday. Johnny Brash (Kevin Palardy) is a songwriter and dive-bar owner in Greenwich Village, whose “Pocket Revue” shows off his musical stylings, considered too “sophisticated” to be popular. Kelly (Mariel Rosati), the sweet ingenue, is the third point in a love triangle between Johnny and song-and-dance man Harry (Jim Petro). And then there’s the borsch-belt sidekicks, the sexually adventurous Banjo (James K. Perri), and the tough-talking Sylvia (Kerrin Paul). If I were keeping score, every stock-plot cliche possible in this setting would be checked off amid these five; well, almost. But more on that later.
Things get a little complicated from here on out; I actually had to build myself a little chart on my cocktail napkin to keep track of relationships and who’s-wooing-whom. Harry’s in love with Kelly, but she’s only got eyes for Johnny. Even Harry’s sudden revelation that he’s due to inherit $5 million on his wedding day (a crazy inheritance proviso from his uncle) isn’t enough to sway her — but she’s happy to let Harry use his family name to swing her an audition for the big-name-Broadway-producer Shuberts. Of course, she altruistically plans to introduce the Shuberts to Johnny’s music. But instead, as these plots go, she’s “discovered” and is suddenly well on her way to becoming a Hollywood starlet. Meanwhile, Johnny attempts to fend off propositions from the undersexed and overzealous wealthy English songstress Constance Duquette (Pam Jorgensen).
It’s all fun and games and meringue-light and frothy, until we run full-stop into World War II. The boys are shipped off to Europe, and all at once the musical becomes a strange and disorienting mash-up that’s one part Bob Hope USO Special, one part “Casablanca,” and, curiously, two parts “Saving Private Ryan.”
On that madcap description alone, generally I’d be game; the problems sprout from the fact that this show can’t choose what tone it wants to take and when it wants to take it. The first several numbers are presented as self-aware “we’re in a show! Hello audience!” tunes, but abruptly shifts into a cabaret-style set of in-show numbers as Sylvia and others perform Johnny’s tunes. We shift again a few songs later to straight-up musical theater without the need of plot device. It’s sort of like this musical, from page one, can’t decide what it wants to be when it grows up. It tries on several different veneers, but none meshes quite right.
This is a bit of a shame, because the cast is firmly committed to selling each and every scene, whiplash-inducing though those moments may be. All six have fine voices and present a pleasant, consistent, unified front of good-time charm. Karrin Paul in particular shines as Sylvia, presented as a Carol Burnett-esque songstress. The role is sadly underused, and Sylvia disappears for most of act two, only to show up at the end and deliver the growling, nuanced eleventh-hour number “I’ll Wait for Joe.” It’s a fine, crystal clear moment, perhaps the only pure one of the evening.
But, as I said, investigating the oddness of this show’s script becomes part of the fun. When, late in act two, Johnny is wounded in Europe, and Harry (he’s also — wait for it — a doctor, in addition to his dance-man and impending-millionaire facets) is unable to save him. It’s a good thing Kelly (now a star of stage and screen, in Europe for a conveniently passing-by USO tour) is around to sing Johnny one of his songs, which miraculously and instantly heals him, Lazarus-style. It’s a war movie plot cliche done a million times over, but I’m left uncertain as to whether the playwright was, in fact, in on the joke. I’m willing to assume the answer is “yes,” but, as written, I’m left scratching my head.
I’ll leave you to discover the spectacularly inappropriate joys of “BA-BOOM!,” a wartime number about the proper use of punchline placement in jokes. Here are three hints: lovelorn cows, Vaseline, glue. All figure prominently into the song. Use your imagination.
The talent is strong, the energy is ever-present, and OBT’s cheesecake is always delicious. The book and music of this show are just Frankensteined together in the oddest of ways, and it doesn’t work. But I was never bored. Examining the elements of this decades-old musical proved to be an entertaining evening all on its own.
“The Great American Backstage Musical,” Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through Saturday, April 3. Musical 1940s love story directed by Robert Thick. $27.50 to $29.50 includes dessert. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.