‘We’ll start with the seed of an idea, Then plant it onto paper with a Dixon Ticonderoga and then watch it sprout into a musical and then we’ll help to make it grow bigger,” sing young musical theater collaborators Hunter (Tyler Maynard) and Jeff (Seth Rudetsky.) For a while there is every reason to hope that these two men obsessed with the American musical theater — one a composer, the other, a writer — will actually dream up a fun and funny show without having an idea what it might be about. But what if what they come up with turns out to be blatantly self-indulgent and gratuitously self-congratulatory? Could these not be just the elements that might delight their core audience?
To bring you up to date: “[title of show]” did win over its core audience when it opened to generous reviews Off Broadway in 2006. This encouraged producers to transfer the show to Broadway in 2008. Only they were wrong. The core had been there and done that and “[title of show]” closed after three months of meager business. Am I being mean in sharing this with you? Did this intimate little show really deserve the pockets of adulation it got? Part of the charm could be said to be the presence of the show’s collaborators Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book) playing themselves both Off Broadway and on Broadway. The George Street Playhouse production doesn’t have that audacious conceit. But that’s only part of the problem in this production.
In one respect, it’s a contemporized spoof of the old Mickey/Judy-Come-on-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show theme, but from another point of view it offers proof that a good show needs more than naive optimism and a wishful willfulness to succeed. During the course of the show we are privy to the questionably creative process taken by Jeff (Rudetsky) Hunter (Maynard) as they collaborate on a show they plan to submit for consideration in an impending musical theater festival. The best and brightest idea they can come up with is to write about their inability to think of a good idea for a show. Hence, they begin to write about the process.
Unfortunately, this not-very-compelling conceit is limited by a conveniently reflexive text and an only intermittently clever score. A lot of time is devoted to Jeff and Hunter as they coyly banter back and forth with chatter that feeds as much upon their being gay as it does upon show biz trivia. They somehow manage to process all of this as the basis of their musical. There are moments when some insightful, inventive, and ingratiating ideas surface. It doesn’t take long for their effort to wear out its wit and welcome.
The show has been changed a bit since I originally saw it. Surprisingly cut is a through joke that was, for me, the funniest part of the show. It involved their attempt to interest some well known performers to be in their show. A series of telephone responses to their casting pitch from Victoria Clark, Emily Skinner, and Marin Mazzie got laughs, even if it did come mainly from show biz insiders. Unfortunately, the whole show is too preciously and tiresomely punctuated with references to obscure musicals and the name-dropping of untalented celebrities.
I would wager that only audience members who come armed with as much inside theater knowledge as the collaborators will appreciate the humor. A helpful and amusing glossary of show biz terms and obscure titles is included in the program.
Jeff and Hunter enlist two friends to perform and to participate in the creation of the show: Susan Mosher, a comedic brunette, plays Susan, and Lauren Kennedy, a vivacious blonde, plays Heidi. They are entrusted with a number of songs that might be referenced as defining. Kennedy sings the show’s most substantive song, “I Am Playing Me.” Will their show be selected and will it go on for future development? The answer is before your eyes.
Once their show is selected for further development by the O’Neill Center (no kidding), a mild sense of panic overcomes them. Their attempt to turn their show into something more than “self-serving bullshit” and into something good and commercial allows us to begin caring for these collaborators, as loyalties to each other and dedication to their profession surface.
Maynard, who won Outstanding Breakthrough Actor at the Theater World Awards in 2005 for his lauded portrayal of Mark in the long run hit “Altar Boyz,” is the formidable wind behind the otherwise frayed sails in this show. No one can dispute that Rudetsky’s skill as a theater humorist/writer and as a notable pianist/conductor is non pareil, but his performance skills haven’t been honed to the same degree. As a result, we can only respond to his enthusiasm.
All the action takes place on a bare stage with only a few chairs and a piano. However, as simple as is the set design by R. Michael Miller, it allows for some imaginatively interpolated visuals, the work of projection designer Michael Clark. The piano is given prominence and played with amiable aplomb by music director Jesse Vargas (Larry).
Matt Lenz has directed with the confidence of someone who realized that confidence, under the circumstances, will have to suffice. For whatever it is worth, “[title of show]” refers to the space in the application for the theater festival that needs to be filled in by the collaborators. That’s funny.
“[title of show],” through Sunday, December 12, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $26.50 to $63.50). 732-246-7717.