Wednesday, May 16, 2012

BIG BUDGET STOREFRONT - '[title of show]' at Northlight Theatre

(Photo by Michael Brosilow)

Theatre history, as it so often does, is repeating itself once again - this time at Northlight Theatre. "[title of show]", the meta-theatrical four-person musical that tells the wacky, against-all-odds story of its own creation, opened on Friday night at the Skokie theatre, which is about as unusual and unfriendly a venue for the amiable, miniature meta-musical as Broadway was in 2008.

Created in a kinky cauldron of eagerness, desperation, and wanton boredom by Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book), crowds became positively enamored with the show and its four affably approachable stars at the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival and during a subsequent full production at the Vineyard Theatre Off-Broadway. But when the 'little showtune that could' transferred to the Great White Way, the usual highbrow babble about what belongs on Broadway commenced. The show ran a more than respectable 102 performances at the Lyceum Theatre, propped up by a positive review from the New York Times and adorable cult following that refer to themselves as "tossers. The show received a single Tony Award nomination for Bell's awfully funny book, but unfortunately lost to juggernaut Billy Elliot.  

Now, at Northlight Theatre, despite a sizable and open subscriber audience, I expect that "[title of show]", a musical I personally find impossible to fully dislike, will face similar challenges and dissent or, this time, more likely ambivalence.

"[title of show]"s meta-theatricality was originally driven by the absurd notion that four nobodies who had the gall to, not only write a show about themselves, but also place themselves in it as the stars, could expect to get to Broadway let alone survive in the commercial tundra. Like any memoir of extraordinary circumstance, audiences eagerly came to watch these actual people, living out their own dreams onstage, tell their story in song and dance part musical, part performance art.

Subsequent productions, though, have been quaint, however charming tales of how a show made it to Broadway - a more ragtag "Smash", if you will. Explaining the existence of itself from the genesis of an idea all the way to its bow on Broadway, [title of show] is a combination of story, messed up silliness, and unpreachy artistic lessons. For show geeks, there is also a barrage of obscure flop references that really hit home just how many musicals have failed on Broadway which is, today, retrospectively hilarious.  Chicago, though, is dominated by fare similar to the size, rebelliousness, and abstractness of "[title of show]" in its earliest incarnations, so the musical at Northlight doesn't really come as a shock to frequent theatregoers. It just feels slightly awkward at such a stuffy venue.

"[title of show]" is, I assume, an incomprehensibly different show regionally from what it was on Broadway. I say this not having seen [title of show] in New York, but the four original stars in a workshop of their new collaboration, "Now. Here. This." in June at the Vineyard. Hunter, Jeff, Susan, and Heidi are insane characters on the page, to be sure, but Bell, Bowen, Blackwell, and Blickenstaff, their real life doppelgรคngers, own their ample cuddly idiosyncrasies in a manner that's just about impossible to imitate. Northlight's cast featuring McKinley Carter as Susan, Matthew Crowle as Hunter, Stephen Schellhardt as Jeff, and Christine Sherrill as Heidi, exert a power plant's worth of energy imbuing all sorts of weirdnesses on these characters. But that weirdness, not being their own, is more of an obnoxious approximation like when your best friend starts stealing your mannerisms.

Many of these characters physical mannerisms are a result of original director Michael Berresses jerky, camptastic choreographed movement and staging. Northlights production, directed by Peter Amster, borrows liberally from Berresses stage aesthetic, which, like the set of Noises Off or the choreography of West Side Story, has become symbiotically bound to Bell and Bowens script and score. Amster moves the show well, juxtaposing a transitional smoothness with the books childish attention span.

Working together significantly better as an ensemble than as individuals, the sole fantastic performance here is Schellhardt as Jeff. Though openly introverted like Bowen, Schellhardt had a unique twinkle in his eye and an effortlessness to his humor, with his one-liner grammar corrections giving me some of my heartiest laughs. Because he never pushes quite so effortfully as Crowle and Carter, Jeffs persona becomes the easiest to latch onto.

Bowen's score, though puny in relation to those belty Broadway beasts, meshes uncommonly well with Bell's book. Limited to a single piano, played with ample support and graciousness by Chicago's favorite music director, Doug Peck, the tunes have a jovial kitsch to them that never descends into tweedom.

Despite what is lost in the regional translation, the musical's positive, yet not too overly sentimental message about the necessity of art and creativity to a person's livelihood remains as inspiring as ever. The didactic toe-tapper, "Die, Vampire, Die!" sung with gravitas by Carter, depicts vampires as "any person or thought or feeling that stands between you and your creative self-expression." It's a triumphant, thrilling song that will have you dragging your old easel out of the attic just as soon as you pull into the driveway. It also should leave theatremakers feeling relieved that Chicago's pack of vampires is a touch less foreboding than New York's bloodthirsty coven.

[title of show] with a book by Hunter Bell and Music & Lyrics by Jeff Bowen runs at Northlight Theatre through June 10th.