Who is Mary Stout? Ever heard of "Henry, Sweet Henry"? How about "Bagels and Yox"?
Who is Mary Stout? Ever heard of “Henry, Sweet Henry”? How about “Bagels and Yox”? Mute incomprehension means you’re the wrong demographic for “[title of show],” a cheerful in-jokeathon about the perils of (subsistence) living and (hardly) working in the musical theater. For those tapped into tuner geekdom, the Celebration’s rousing, rowdy re-creation of this Fringe Fest winner and Main Stem disappointment milks the material for all it’s worth, and then some.
Just as “Seinfeld” was famously a sitcom about nothing, “[title of show]” made its mark as a tuner about itself, featuring actual librettist Hunter Bell and songwriter Jeff Bowen as aspirants determined to whip something up for a prestigious new-works festival. (Another demographic clue is how you respond when you hear “We have to go to the festival.” Sly references to old shows and gossip pop up everywhere.)
Devoid of any other ideas, the fellows end up submitting a musical about the tuner’s own journey. It’s like “Big River” as scripted by Luigi Pirandello, with the creators’ own words and actions, plus those of friends, feeding the scenes we’re watching right now. The conceit wears out its welcome eventually, with the emotional content taking over when the [show] goes over big, and pressure to retool it for popular success puts unforeseen stresses on friendship.
Having other actors portray Hunter (Micah McCain) and Jeff (Jeffrey Landman) reduces the original cast’s annoyingly self-congratulatory air, so it’s easier to root for McCain’s dreamy goofball and Landman’s affable, slightly pedantic brooder. They believably convey childhood buddies’ easy give-and-take, full of the hints and side glances only they two can appreciate.
They also satisfyingly pamper their distaff recruits, belter-diva Heidi (Carey Peters), who always needs to shine, and nervous Susan (Jennifer R. Blake), who’s all but left the biz for corporate job security. All four score individually with Bowen’s sprightly if undistinguished songs, and together they achieve a blend reminiscent of Manhattan Transfer at its smoothest.
Helmer Michael Shepperd and choreographer Ameenah Kaplan stage inventive, amusing moments throughout, though it might’ve been helpful to clamp down on the guys’ energy a bit in the first half so as to avoid strain later on. Their secret weapon is musical director Gregory Nabours, a keyboard virtuoso also garnering laughs as the quartet’s now-you-acknowledge-him, now-he’s-set-decoration accompanist.
Like a threadbare garment or the plot of “Aspects of Love,” “[title of show]” tends to fall apart the more you inspect it. Celebrating creativity for its own sake, it denies any distinction between quality and kitsch yet gets on its high horse when kitschy work becomes compromised. Its characters denounce and covet material success in equal measure, with no one to call them on the contradiction. The best advice is to ignore any rough edges or pretentiousness, sit back and just “Let It Ride” (a 1961 turkey Jeff and Hunter surely recall).