Saturday, January 15, 2022

"[title of show]" at Lyric Arts

If you love musicals (and if you don't, why are you reading this blog?), grab your vax card and mask and head to Anoka to see Lyric Arts' new production of [title of show], the charming, irreverent, quirky little musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical. I knew I loved the show, but I hadn't seen it in over ten years and I had forgotten just how fantastic it is. Chock full of (sometimes obscure) musical theater references and meta fourth-wall breaking, it shows the creative process in all it's wonder and heartbreak. Lyric has assembled a really talented young cast and creative team, some of whose names you may not know, but you will now. It's 90 minutes of sheer joy and delight, a celebration of making art that couldn't come at a better time. 

[title of show] chronicles a remarkable true story - two friends write a musical in three weeks and enter it into a festival, get accepted and further develop the show to perform it in the festival, find a producer to take the show to Off-Broadway, and eventually Broadway. This is a very unlikely story in the days of jukebox musicals and movie adaptations (which has only gotten worse in the 15 years since the show was written). A new original one-act small-cast musical on Broadway?! That's something close to a miracle. And that's exactly what the show is about - how this unlikely Broadway musical came to be through chutzpah, hard work, friendship, and a little luck. The first two-thirds of the show depict creators Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book) writing a musical to submit to the festival, along with friends Heidi and Susan (all of whom played themselves through the Broadway production). Then we see what happens at the festival, the move to Off-Broadway, and the struggle to get the show produced on Broadway. This is when things turn a little darker, as the the friends face pressure to change the show to fit the Broadway mold, and disagree on what their show should be. But eventually, they agree that it's better to be "nine people's favorite thing than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing." They stay true to their art, their vision, and their friendship, and still get the golden ticket that is a show on Broadway.

photo by Molly Weibel
Jake Sung-Guk Sullivan, recently seen on Lyric's stage in the hilarious The 39 Steps, directs the show with lightness, humor, and a sort of controlled frenetic energy that never lets up. The four-person cast of relative newcomers to the #TCTheater scene is just fantastic; they all sing like a dream, but perhaps more importantly they're so believable as these characters and feel like genuine friends as they alternately support and bicker with each other. Bradley Johnson and Brendan Nelson Finn are a dynamic comedy duo (giving off serious Elders Price and Cunningham vibes), the former as the more serious Jeff and the latter playing every moment of Hunter's silliness. Alice McGlave is lovely and funny as Heidi, and Lux Mortenson is a true find as the wacky attention-hungry Susan. I expect to see more of all of them on stages around town in the near future. The unofficial fifth member of the cast is Bradley Beahen, who not only music directs the show and serves as a one-man band, but also portrays the show's accompanist Larry, who only gets a few lines but is a constant presence in every scene, whether participating or reacting. And this clever, funny, meta, musical-theater-reference-filled score sounds great with this group in this space.

The show is written to only need "four chairs and a keyboard," but this team has made the smart choice to flesh out the world of the writers. They've built a small NYC apartment on the Lyric Arts stage that almost feels claustrophobic, as the friends are stuck there writing. It's filled with not just four chairs and a keyboard, but also a large coffee table (the center of a funny bit or two), a tiny kitchen area, and so many musical theater posters, pictures, and tchotchkes that it's impossible to clock them all. The cast wears the same outfit for the whole show, but they simply and subtly inform the characters. Despite the space limitations, there's some clever, fun, and funny choreography that utilizes every corner of the apartment. (Scenic design by Cory Skold, props design by Kat Walker, costume design by Samantha Fromm Haddow, choreography by Nickie Kromminga Hill.)

I was lucky enough to see the original cast in their follow-up show, Now. Here. This., Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre where [title of show] got its start (and meet the boys after the show). It didn't reach the success of their first creation, but it's also a funny, quirky, original, and at times poignant show. The team at Lyric Arts has done a great job bringing to life the remarkable story of these four friends who made a Broadway musical. It's a really smart, and also ridiculously funny, exploration of art, artists, and creation, similar to what Sondheim grappled with in Sunday in the Park with George, or Jonathan Larson in Tick, Tick... Boom (the recent brilliant movie adaptation now available on Netflix). It's perhaps a little sillier and more profane than those two shows, but no less meaningful in its depiction of the importance of art, and the struggle of artists to make it.

[title of show] (the weird title is explained in the show) runs Thursdays through Sundays through February 6 at Lyric Arts in Anoka. Click here for info and tickets.

Alice McGlave, Brendan Nelson Finn, Lux Mortenson,
and Bradley Johnson (photo by Molly Weibel)