Arts » Theater

The making of the making of a musical in [title of show]

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What's as theatrically cray-cray as a meta-musical about two guys writing a musical ... about two guys writing a musical? A cast that decides to work the show out among themselves before bringing in a director, because, you know, that's how they did it in the original version.

I'll save you the trouble of looking: You won't find either item listed under Best Creative Practices. But in this instance, both are just crazy enough to work.

For those still parsing out the opening sentence of this review, [title of show] is a self-referential 2002 musical theater satire that documents the efforts of composer Jeff Bowen, playwright Hunter Bell and two of their friends to beat a three-week deadline and submit an original musical for the prestigious New York Musical Theatre Festival.

For the record, their musical was accepted and premiered there in 2004, played off-Broadway in 2006 and opened on Broadway in 2008. True to form, its creators subsequently updated and added new material chronicling the quartet's experiences at each step of the way (in numbers including "Development Medley" and "Awkward Photo Shoot").

Thus, the show opens with a song about an opening song to a musical, in which the cast describes its well-worn structure in the lyrics. And in the follow-up, "Two Nobodies in New York," the composer and playwright ponder what their musical might be about: "We could ask significant questions, we could get important points across, like are we writing for art? And is art a springboard for fame? And will fame get us a sitcom? And will a sitcom get us on Ellen?"

Jam-packed with theatrical in-jokes, name-checking dozens of obscure Broadway shows (Bagels and Yox, anyone?), [title of show] is an insider's love note to musical theater and a must-see for those who love the art form. Its spoofy send-ups and slams (including a knowing tribute to intra-cast jealousies, "What Kind of Girl is She?") also tell a cautionary tale about stressors that come at productions from inside and out. Though the material occasionally stretches thin (in numbers such as "Monkeys and Playbills" and "Die, Vampire, Die!"), the emotional validity in numbers including "Part of It All," "A Way Back to Then" and "Finale" make us glad we took the trip.

James Ilsley, who impressed in Raleigh Little Theatre's Rocky Horror Show, is strong here as Hunter. Phil Denny needed only more confidence as composer Jeff on the night we saw the show. Jess Barbour and Kate Bowra were fine as secondary characters Heidi and Susan (who get their own number, "Secondary Characters," in mid-performance). While the characterizations and interplay might have been fleshed out further if director David Henderson had had more than the last two weeks of rehearsal, what's here works.

In the end, [title of show] is a funny, empathetic guided tour through some of the dilemmas and delights experienced by the folks who make musical theater. If it got us any closer to what they experience, we'd have to be on stage with them. I imagine more than one audience member was tempted to do just that before the night was over.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Beast in show."

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