Gutenberg! The Musical!” is, in a word, zany! zany! zany! Two-character biotuner, in the guise of a backer’s audition, is as thin as a pfannkuchen — pancake, to you — but actors Christopher Fitzgerald and Jeremy Shamos pull off the yuks with aplomb. Theatergoers who don’t relish shucked corn mixed with slices of ham may be advised to stay away; for those in the mood, though, “Gutenberg! The Musical!” is one hell of a goofy evening.
Scott Brown and Anthony King’s “biography” is about as accurate as a political campaign commercial, albeit more amusing. Gutenberg (the character) lives in the medieval German town of Schlimmer. A wine presser by trade, he can’t help but notice that everyone lives in severe poverty and darkness because — as each character tells us — they cannot read.
One townswoman has a dead baby, deceased because she mistook the medicine for a jar of jellybeans (so labeled and clearly visible from the last row of the theater). “Jellybeans, not medicine/If only I could read,” she sings. If this sounds morbid, it’s not; the dead baby even sings a solo in the finale.
Gutenberg’s assistant, who spends much of her time stomping grapes in a cardboard wine barrel, is the buxom blond Helvetica Gummistiefel. (Surname seems to translate to “rubber boot.”) Helvetica loves the boss, natch, but there’s a catch: “I can’t read,” she laments in her big love ballad. “I can’t read — him.”
Gutenberg, in an epiphany, converts his wine press into a printing press.
The plot is complicated by a mad monk, who sits around sharpening Ticonderoga No. 2s with an electric pencil sharpener. Said monk doesn’t want anyone to learn to read, so he can continue to interpret the Bible for them as he wishes.
Ultimately, Gutenberg is burned to death by an unruly mob. But the printing press lives on.
Show is written in the same inside-showbiz mode as many other recent musicals. “Gutenberg” is kind of a user-friendly “Urinetown,” stuffed with groaners that might make Mel Brooks’ eyes roll. From the opening number — “Gutenberg/darn tootin’-berg/he’s the best chap around sure as shootin’-berg” — we’re in good, if off-kilter, hands.
The local Schlimmer Beef-fat Trimmer greets the dawn with “The sun it rises in the east/I smell bread rising with the yeast.” The lovers sing the only love ballad in memory in which the girl hears “I love you” when the boy sings “I love ewe.” Lamb stew, that is. (“E-w-e,” Gutenberg explains. “E-w-who?” asks the girl. “Ewe!” he says. “Me?” she asks. Etc.)
Physical production is built around a few dozen baseball caps, with names of characters stenciled on. This conceit works delectably, with the two-man cast using caps to give us a singing quartet, a solo for heroine with two singing rats and — in a production number — an 11-character kick-line with only two legs.
Both actors are exemplary. Fitzgerald is one of the funnier comedians on the New York stage, as he demonstrated in “Wicked” (as Boq) and “Amour.” Here he seems a cross between Bobby Morse and Wallace (of “Wallace and Gromit”), with a bit of Peter Lorre thrown in.
Among his characters are the mild-mannered but eager-to-please composer; the evil monk, a Southern redneck with a greasy leer; and poor blond Helvetica, the terribly conflicted heroine/love interest. (The triangulated power struggle seems to come out of “The Apple Tree,” currently being revived by Roundabout.) Fitzgerald’s eyes regularly pop from his otherwise mild face, and he dances around the stage with legs and arms jackknifed like scissors.
As the bright and friendly Gutenberg, Shamos is equally effective, if not quite as eccentric as Fitzgerald. He plays the straight man, as it were, although the character is not. (Fitzgerald, as the budding composer, says one day he’ll tell his grandkids about the creation of “Gutenberg.” Shamos, as the librettist, says he’ll tell — his grandparents.) Still, Shamos gets to clown it up; his long-faced Young Monk, with multiple pencil wounds, is exceedingly droll. So is his invention of the printing press, to a Presleyesque “Glimmer in Schlimmer.”
The actors have been greatly aided by director Alex Timbers (artistic director of cutting-edge troupe Les Freres Corbusier, whose “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant” returns to New York Theater Workshop this month). Piece was originally developed by author-actors Brown and King at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Chelsea. British producer Trevor Brown urged an expansion to full length and presented the show (performed by the authors) at London’s Jermyn Street Theater in January. The show then was recast with Fitzgerald and Shamos and mounted in late September at the New York Musical Theater Festival.
A one-month run at 59E59 has been announced, but with producers like Ron Kastner and Terry Allen Kramer, one suspects bigger plans.
Gutenberg, the original, was a goldsmith by trade. Handled wisely, “Gutenberg! The Musical!” could be a multiproduction gold mine.