[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!

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[title of show]: A Personal Chronicle

4 09 2010

My long history of creative inspiration from [title of show] is really inseparable from any review I may write of its production. A delightfully self-referential musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical, [title of show] has made its way from the NY Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) to off-Broadway, to a popular blog and YouTube series, to Broadway – and now, to its LA premiere at Celebration Theatre. I suspect I am not the only one who has traced her creative path through the work of Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics), Hunter Bell (book), Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell.

I first saw this endearingly scrappy little musical at the Vineyard Theatre in fall 2006; I was participating in the Duke in NY Arts program at the time, interning at the NY Musical Theatre Festival and just beginning to navigate my way through the (admittedly intimidating, but thrilling) city and world of musical theater. As we waited to enter the Vineyard one night, my friend Julia Robertson and I decided to write a musical for our study away program’s open-ended final project. [title of show] was quirky, inspirational, and just the impetus we needed to start. The Duke in NY group met and chatted with the cast afterwards (Heidi is a fellow Blue Devil), and Julia and I left the Vineyard eager to write that original musical!

Flash forward to winter 2008: Intern the Musical premiered at Duke University as Julia’s and my senior distinction project. The thrill of putting up an original musical comedy was intoxicating. Our advisors John Clum and Anthony Kelley brought down Anthony Lyn, resident director of Broadway’s Mary Poppins, to see the show in the last week of rehearsal; he offered incredibly valuable feedback to the creative team and worked with our actors to polish the show for our premiere. Three days before opening, I penned a new finale: “A Hope That Lets You Soar,” which quickly became one of my favorite compositions and summed up the collaborative ensemble experience of Intern. Family and friends trekked to Duke for the opening, and my life mentor Manny Azenberg even flew in from NYC for our little show. Intern played to a packed house every night that weekend, and some friends came multiple times to see our work. If there was any doubt in my mind about whether I’d venture into a PhD program in English or Theater after graduation, Intern the Musical sealed the deal: I needed to keep up this creative and collaborative aspect of my life.

That summer after Julia and I graduated from Duke, Intern the Musical made it way to NYC for a little reading through NYMF’s Arts and Business Council internship program. (How fun to be a former NYMF intern myself, sharing a musical loosely inspired by Julia’s and my own theater internship experiences with a host of new interns!) Throughout college, I had kept up with [title of show] via the cast’s blog and YouTube series – and through the sheer force of imagination, talent, and drive to be part of it all, [tos] had just opened on Broadway. In a strange way, [title of show]‘s success felt like a personal success. Julia and I reunited at the Lyceum to see this little show that had been such a part of our personal inspiration to write Intern. And yes, we waited at the stage door to say hello afterwards and pass off a cast recording of our own musical. How could we not?

Since moving to LA to start a PhD in Theater, I have kept composing, and [tos] has remained an important touchstone for my work. The show – and its creators – keep popping into my life when I most need a little creative encouragement and inspiration. I ran into Hunter Bell at the Mark Taper’s production of Parade last fall, just as I was gearing up to compose a new family musical for the Morgan-Wixson in Santa Monica. Then last night, my friend Christopher Albrecht and I made our way to Celebration Theatre for the LA premiere of [title of show]. And who should we spot in the audience, but Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell? What a serendipitous encounter!

The LA production of [title of show] comes at the end of a whirlwind summer for me, which included summer dissertation research as well as premiering a 15-minute musical off-off-Broadway (Rat Poison Love in the West Village Musical Theatre Festival) and workshopping a new family musical (Thank You, Mr. Falker at the Morgan-Wixson). It also comes at a juncture in my life with an almost overwhelming number of scholarly and creative opportunities in store. Scary and exciting. (Die vampire, die.)

This “little musical that could” is at once like and unlike any other, continually interwoven with my personal creative journey these past four years – and yet I know that my story is not unique. I am not the only one who can trace her creative path through [title of show] – and this makes [tos] all the more special. I look forward to seeing how Jeff, Hunter, Heidi, Susan, and their creations continue to inspire my ongoing journey – and others – in the years to come.