Tuesday, September 02, 2008

[title of show]

[title of show]

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg
Heidi Blickenstaff as Heidi (top, left), Jeff Bowen as Jeff (bottom, left)
Susan Blackwell as Susan (top, right) & Hunter Bell as Hunter (bottom, right)
in the original Broadway musical [title of show]


The Godmother of the charming new musical "[title of show]" is — drum roll please ! —Mamma Mia!

The summer has been long, humid and often peppered with curious developments, such as fouth-graders winning Olympic Gold Medals, Xanadu celebrating its first YEAR on the Rialto, a Presidential candidate choosing a running mate not only 'out of the box,' but out of the icebox, and even more vexing, a political climate where having a personal story trumps having a professional resume.

Well, "[title of show]" certainly has a personal story that trumps a professional resume. And, like Mamma Mia! all those many years ago, it faced an uphill climb prior to opening, that it would be able to win over the ever-dwindling percentage of the Broadway audience that actually lives in the five boroughs [and maybe their hundred-mile perimeter if we are to be gracious about it].

Like the Abba show, this one also takes loosely-connected elements [they had a catalog of songs, this crew had a loosely-defined series of daily-life experiences], and strings them together with catchy numbers, a simple story arch, and a mocking self-awareness that says to those in the acknowledged seats in front of them, "We know. It's a show. Relax. Give us credit for trying our hearts out."

And they succeed. The plot follows the tried and tried and tried and ever-true heartstrings plucker, the one about young hopefuls looking to make their own break in the cruel, brash and closed-door world of big-time theatre. The location moves from Mickey and Judy's barn to the modest apartment of a harmless thirty-something theatre queen, who floats the improbable notion that he and his equally-passionate friend dash off, in three weeks, an entry to a new musicals contest. They rope in two female friends, decide to use the process of writing the musical as the premise OF the musical, and staple together their late-night meetings, lunch hour brain-storming sessions, hectic rehearsals, false starts and mutual self-help moments into a kind of book. Musical support comes from the piano player Larry Pressgrove in the corner—also acknowledged.

Starring in the gem they created are Jeff Bowen [music & lyrics] and Hunter Bell [book], with able support from Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff. Heidi [the person and the character] is the only one whose feet have actually trod Broadway boards, either in large ensembles, or as an understudy.

The segment of the Mamma Mia! audience that gets the most out of that show are those who already knew, and sometimes memorized the songs that make up the score. In "[title of show]", the parallel audience segment would be anyone who remembers arcane facts about failed Broadway shows, the way one of your cousins knows every stat about every pro baseball player for the last century.

But if that is not you, or if that is partially you, it is still a great ride. It was not uncommon for skeptical New Yorkers [this writer included], who embarked on the prospect of spending an Abba night with a spine steeled with determination, vowing to make the best of a bad situation. Then, after being surrounded by ecstatic audience members cheering and stomping from the first moments the music begins, one had to admit that it was fine, it was fun, and should you permit yourself to let yourself go along for the ride, because it would be a doozey.

Director Michael Berresse brings his very recent experience as an actor in the revival of A Chorus Line. The folks that populate "[title of show]" represent those souls who do not make it past the initial cut in the first round of auditions, for a role in a new musical. The environment also recalls that chillingly-funny British comedy Extras, which follows a few wannabees stuck playing background, nameless characters on television and in films, hoping for a chance to say one line, or get cast as someone with a name.

All four actors are at the peak of their powers, not the least of which is to maintain that necessary air of moment-to-moment seeming improvisation. The cast stitches together what could have been a collection of specialty sketches, but instead gives it a cohesion and a vitality that makes the most of very limited resources.

Of the four, Susan Blackwell makes the most memorable Broadway debut. She joins the ranks of actor / comedienne performers who, if she chooses to go with the often limiting dangers of type-casting, can follow in the footsteps of real icons such as Nancy Walker, Thelma Ritter, Eve Arden and more recently, Harriet Harris.

So, it ain't Hamlet It's not even I Hate Hamlet. It is a truly welcome ninety minute vacation from all that stuff happening out there on the street.

TONY VELLELA, the veteran theatre correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, writes and produces the PBS series about theatre, "Character Studies". His work has also appeared in Parade, Theatre Week, USA Today, Dramatics, Rolling Stone, and several other publications.


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