The reality show craze has spawned erudite academic theses and furious op-ed pieces; entertainments both cerebral (“The Truman Show”) and visceral (“The Hunger Games”); and still more reality shows. Now, miraculously, it has inspired a terrific new American musical. The Old Globe’s smart, tuneful “Nobody Loves You” skewers a crackpot TV dating competition without losing sight of the genuinely yearning, burning hearts on either side of the small screen. Delighted audiences in San Diego, and surely elsewhere for years to come, will eagerly hand everyone involved a rose.
Satire requires truthfulness, a ubiquitous quality here beginning with titular “NLY” itself, a preposterous mash-up of “Big Brother,” “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” with a little “Real World” and “Survivor” on the side. Handpicked hopefuls interact in hot tubs and relay races to court fandom and earn another week of love seeking, but no antics cooked up by librettist Itamar Moses are so ridiculous as to challenge our belief that, yes, this could actually get aired and thrive.
Then, when cynical, conflicted philosophy grad student Jeff (Adam Kantor, excellent) jealously pursues his ex into auditions and gets picked, we readily buy his decision to stick it out and remain aloof from the overheated hijinks to tease out his doctorate thesis. Would a show tottering in the ratings willingly invite a viper into its bosom? Yep, we buy that too, and we never doubt America would take Jeff to heart when flirtation with ambitious P.A. Jenny (wonderful Jenni Barber) changes all the rules and goes viral.
Playwright Moses has long toyed with multiple layers of ambiguous reality, but in works like “The Four of Us” and “Completeness” his self-conscious metatheatrical conceits seemed fearful of letting tender feelings breathe. Now sparked by collaborator Gaby Alter’s infectious melodies and a juicy satiric target he needn’t back away from, Moses puts it all together.
Points are scored on slick, sly “NLY” showrunner Nina (superb Nicole Lewis) and fatuous host Byron (Heath Calvert, perfect) even as we’re induced truly to care about the contestants’ various real and “meta-real” feints and retreats. As Jeff gets sucked into the game in spite of himself, he poses a key question — “Can one perform and connect at the same time?” — which couples will debate on the way home and for days after.
The flawless ensemble assembled by casting director Stephanie Klapper demonstrates boundless charm within helmer Michelle Tattenbaum’s droll, understated style. Familiar types like the resident drunken slut (Lauren Molina), Christian do-gooder (Kelsey Kurz) and repressed schoolmarm (Kate Morgan Chadwick) win laughs and empathy without courting condescension.
Heaviest comic lifting is shouldered by the extraordinary Alex Brightman. All the show’s doubling is impeccable, but he’s particularly indistinguishable, and priceless, as Jeff’s stoner pal; then a strutting “NLY” guido; and finally a gay homeviewer whose delighted sung Tweets invite us into realityland’s inexhaustible appeal.
If too many of Alter’s songs fall away without a plangent button, they’re too sunny and infused with pop romantic desire for anyone to care, especially as managed by Vadim Feichtner and his unseen snappy combo. Alter and Moses’ best lyrics go to the marvelous Kantor and Barber, from their list of shared antipathies in “So Much to Hate” — a perfect way to kick off a relationship — to the sweet ballad “I Think I Love You for Real.”
“So You Think You Can Dance” choreographer Mandy Moore designs TV-savvy physical moves to match the emotional authenticity. She and lighting designer Tyler Micoleau, who bathes even us in a rosy glow as befitting a very special finale episode, are two of the evening’s unsung stars. But as “Nobody Loves You” demonstrates, we’re all stars. We just need our moment to prove it.