[title of show]: Celebration Theatre, 9/3/10

4 09 2010

In a post below, you can read the chronicle of my creative journey via [title of show]. My personal affection for this musical – having followed it almost from its inception to its current LA premiere at the Celebration Theatre – immediately taints whatever purported objectivity this review could hold. A musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical, [title of show] has been a touchstone for much of my own musical creativity. Far from being just a witty insiders’ tribute to the Great White Way, however, this musical extends inspiration to anyone who has ever dreamed of creating, but been daunted by vampires of criticism and self-doubt along the way. Celebration Theatre’s LA premiere is a soaring flight of fancy that has deservedly extended its run through September 11.

Two nobodies in NY, Jeff (Jeffrey Landman) and Hunter (Micah McCain) decide to get off their asses and write a new musical for the inaugural NY Musical Theatre Festival – in under a month. They gather actresses Heidi (Carey Peters) and Susan (Jennifer R. Blake), as well as accompanist Larry (Gregory Nabours), on a meta-musical journey about the struggles and joys of creation. [title of show] takes them from NYMF to off-Broadway and, finally, to Broadway itself – with new additions to the script at every twist and turn.

Nothing quite compares to seeing the original creators on stage (Jeff Bowen as “Jeff,” Hunter Bell as “Hunter,” etc.), but the show holds up even without this directly autobiographical component. Much like A Chorus Line, these characters so resonate with performers that [title of show] will always have a tinge of the autobiographical. Last night felt particularly meta; I enjoyed watching Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen, surprise guests in the audience, watch their musical theater counterparts almost as much as I enjoyed watching the show itself!

Jeffrey Landman is pitch-perfect as the rational yet subtly quirky composer/lyricist Jeff, while Micah McCain takes more risks as over-the-top show queen bookwriter Hunter; McCain’s portrayal is hit-and-miss, as some of his bold choices veer into caricature. Gregory Nabours is one of the most interactive and engaging Larry’s I have ever seen; although the keyboard sounds a bit muddy at times, Nabour’s facial expressions and flirtations with Heidi are a delight. Jennifer R. Blake embraces Susan’s verbal and physical quirks, while Carey Peters’ Heidi is affectionate and endearing – but could use more grounding. I was particularly disappointed with “A Way Back to Then” – a ballad in which Heidi recaptures the magic she felt dancing and dreaming as a child. Peters intersperses her lovely, mature alto with a comedic little kid voice that clashes with the tone of the song.

In fact, the production as a whole could use more grounding. While Michael Shepperd’s direction and Ammenah Kaplan’s choreography keep the story clipping along at a wonderful comedic pace, some elements are over-exaggerated – and tender moments like “A Way Back to Then” could be more fully embraced. The production is not perfect, but neither is the script. In a musical that is otherwise so honest, the “Act II” conflict and resolution has always felt contrived to me. What I want from [title of show] is not a “well-made play,” but a serialized journey: the ebb and flow of life as it comes, rather than a carefully-constructed narrative formula.

But all this is nitpicking. At the end of the day, Celebration Theatre’s production of [title of show] made me soar with laughter and tear up a few times, all while providing me with that necessary kick-in-the-butt to keep creating. Four chairs and a keyboard can make a musical, and Celebration’s intimate venue provided the perfect locale for this show’s West coast premiere. With actors running down the aisles throughout the production and as good a view of the audience as the cast, the space cultivates an infectious community energy that may just draw me back for a second viewing next weekend!