'Grey Gardens'

A cute little workshop musical that was inoffensive in its downtown setting catering to its downtown claque, "[title of show]" stands pathetically naked on Broadway.

A cute little workshop musical that was inoffensive in its downtown setting catering to its downtown claque, “[title of show]” stands pathetically naked on Broadway. Show’s whimsical conceit — to construct an original musical from moment-by-moment minutiae in the lives of its collaborators — survives the transfer intact, as do the original creatives. But stripped of satirical edge for its heavy Broadway date, the backstage show by Hunter Bell (book) and Jeff Bowen (score) is revealed in all its narcissism, flaunting its shallow aesthetic values and taking unseemly pride in its inflated ambitions.

It’s entirely possible, of course, that the self-satire was never there to begin with, and that Messrs. Bowen and Bell were always as enamored of themselves and their modest idea as they are here. But on a fresh viewing, the substance of the musical emerges with far greater clarity — and loses whatever charm sustained it downtown.

“An Original Musical” pretty much sums up the show’s bald premise — that a couple of slackers with no ideas, but with an urgent desire to get a musical on Broadway, can turn that trick by writing about nothing. The creepy thing is that, while the characters of Jeff (Bowen) and Hunter (Bell) cynically mock what it takes to make a Broadway hit musical — “TV stars, movie stars, pop stars … sexy male dancers … a big lush orchestra … a friggin’ electric blimp” — they seem to believe their own shabby values are an improvement.

So, while they have nothing to offer in the way of aesthetic principles themselves, “Part of It All” finds them fantasizing about the fruits of fame: “a trendy photo shoot for a homo magazine … a house upstate … fans to captivate … lunch with Bernadette” and all the rest of it.

Despite the inside jokes (which won’t resonate with anyone who doesn’t know or care about Roma Torre), there is a remarkable lack of self-awareness in all this. Nor do the buds get any wakeup calls from earnest Heidi (Heidi Blickenstaff) or depressive Susan (Susan Blackwell), two personable performers who handle themselves with assurance in the song department but are swept up in the self-deception that personality is talent and self-expression is theater.

In “I Am Playing Me,” Heidi is thrilled, just thrilled, to find herself taking centerstage — even if she has nothing to say for herself. In “Die, Vampire, Die,” Susan exults in her ability to stifle any doubts about their project. And in “Change It, Don’t Change It,” all four collaborators congratulate themselves for preserving the integrity of a show that, lest we forget,  is about nothing.

While the direction and minimal choreography is more fluid in this incarnation, helmer Michael Berresse has also relaxed his hold on whatever self-parody existed in the original production at the Vineyard. For all the lip talk about being true to one’s values (“I want there to be substance, not just fluff,” Hunter insists), the mocking self-awareness that gave “[title of show]” much of its offbeat appeal (“not that there’s anything wrong with fluff”) has evaporated in the move uptown. If there’s one thing that isn’t funny, it’s funny people taking themselves too seriously to see how funny they are when they try to be serious.

[title of show]

Lyceum Theater; 914 seats; $101.50 top

Production

A Kevin McCollum, Jeffrey Seller, Roy Miller, Laura Camien, Kris Stewart and Vineyard Theater presentation in association with Rachel Helson, Sara Katz, Lams Entertainment, Jaimie Mayer, Heather Provost and Tom Smedes of a musical in one act with book by Hunter Bell, score by Jeff Bowen. Directed and choreographed by Michael Berresse. Music direction and arrangements, Larry Pressgrove.

Creative

Set, Neil Patel; costumes, Chase Tyler; lighting, Ken Billington, Jason Kantrowitz; sound, Acme Sound Partners; production stage manager, Martha Donaldson.  Opened July 17, 2008.  Reviewed July 15.  Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

Jeff - Jeff Bowen Hunter - Hunter Bell Heidi - Heidi Blickenstaff Susan - Susan Blackwell
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