He finally did it. Joe Iconis, the best composer nobody was hiring, got an honest-to-god production, and now we have to decide what to do with his time-warping Long Island comedy “ReWrite: A Musical Comedy Triple Feature.” With improbably catchy songs like a middle-aged woman’s hilarious ode to marzipan (the only thing she can cook) and a short libretto full of bull’s-eye jokes, the tremendously talented songwriter’s show has less in common with neighboring musicals and more with a pop concept album like Ben Folds Five’s “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.”
For the first two sections, “ReWrite” is unstoppable. With Iconis onstage at the piano, we get two pretty standard premises, worked out with tremendous energy: There’s “Nelson Rocks!,” a pre-prom high school worryfest starring geeky Nelson (Nick Blaemire, nicely recovered from his own brief Broadway flameout, “Glory Days,” and the strongest male voice in Iconis’ mini-pantheon of favorite actors), and “Miss Marzipan,” about a desperately lonely woman (a very funny Lorinda Lisitza) trying for love one last time. As for the third section, “The Process”…. well, more on that later.
“Nelson Rocks!” is more or less an expanded version of “Nerd Love,” a doo-wop style number Iconis played in his Zipper Factory revue this fall. In the 30-minute version, Nelson imagines and reimagines asking out angelic Jenny Vecharelli (Lauren Marcus) — “she’s fat-girl nice/ but her bod is the bomb,” you understand.
If John Hughes had written musicals, he might have beaten Iconis to “Nelson Rocks.” High school is the perfect setting for the composer’s piano-pop stylings — much of this show sounds like music that fashion-conscious kids would listen to, and it’s plausible (well, musical-theater plausible) that they’d sing that way, too.
“Miss Marzipan” is far and away the most promising thing Iconis has done in this show. The paean to Stockholm Syndrome is clever without being snide, it has some genuine emotions — loneliness, anger — working for it, and it’s not anything most people will have seen before, unless they’re prone to laughing through Kathy Bates’ performance in “Misery.”
Lisitza’s character — merely an ad hoc kidnapper, if you believe her — is probably not the most sympathetic lady, but Iconis has a soft spot for her that makes her worth hearing. “Everyone I talk to makes me feel so bad about myself,” she says sadly to her victim (A.J. Shively). “Like I’m crashing a party or something.”
Iconis and helmer John Simpkins tie these stories together loosely, though it seems like the connections are intended to have more of an impact than they actually register. In the third section, though, Iconis tasks himself with “The Process” of bringing it all to a big conclusion, starring Jason Williams as a musical writer named Joe, who happens to be wearing the exact same clothes as the pianist.
The “emotional breakthrough,” starring a jackass producer, a nagging mom and Mick Jagger as the anxieties Joe has to defeat, doesn’t go terribly well, and Iconis seems to know it. As a result, there’s a larger multitude of sins than the join-hands-and-sing finale can cover, and the show ends with a badly lopsided number — a song with great music and the emotional depth of a kiddie pool.
If that judgment sounds harsh, it’s because it’s so hard to look at Iconis without seeing the future. The flaws in this show — a libretto that strings jokes together rather than fleshing out the story, barely there orchestrations, a cheap climax — are all secondary to the extraordinary music and clever poetry, all of which are of a generation that has a multitude of voices in pop music and a few in playwrighting, but none in musical theater.
The idea that a talented 27-year-old composer would want to work in a form as badly depleted as musical comedy is encouraging in itself, and it’s not that he can’t write with depth, it’s that depth sometimes escapes him. “ReWrite” is a little wobbly, but it’s by no means a misstep — see it for the songs, the gags and the talented cast, sure, but pay attention to the momentum gathering behind its writer.