[title of show] = musical theater bliss

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(from left) Jamison Stern, Farah Alvin, Ian Leonard and Laura Jordan are the merry musical-obsessed quartet in the TheatreWorks production of [title of show]. Below: Leonard and Stern sing “An Original Musical” in more ways than one. Photos by Mark Kitaoka

I can tell you that [title of show] is not for everyone, but I can also tell you that it’s for more people than you might actually think. This meta-musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical (based on their real-life process of two guys actually writing this musical) is especially designed for people who love musicals. LOVE musicals.

There are enough obscure musical theater references to make any theater geek’s head explode with delight, but they appear alongside jokes about obscure musical theater references and the utter nerdiness of true devotees. In other words, writers Hunter Bell (book) and Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) are self-aware enough and sharp enough writers of comedy to include everybody in the joke.

I fell in love with [title of show] after it had made a splash off Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in 2006, and the creative team/cast (Bowen, Bell and Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell) started creating hilarious “we’re on our way to Broadway” Internet videos called The [title of show] Show. (You can watch them all here.) Then the cast album was released, and after one listen, I was completely hooked and couldn’t wait to see the show.

[title of show] did make it to Broadway in 2008—opened in July, closed in October—but has found bigger and better life in regional theaters around the country. All those initial worries about the show being too musical theater insider, too New York, too gay, too whatever all proved to be nonsensical. Turns out [title of show] connects to audiences of all kinds because it’s really about getting off your ass and doing something, creating something and actually working at something you love. Just about everybody can relate to that in one way or another.

The Bay Area has finally been graced with [title of show], and though my expectations were unusually high, the TheatreWorks production is even better than I had hoped for. The cast album is great (really great), but what’s not on the recording is Bell’s very funny, ultimately quite touching book.

We don’t have the original stars to add yet another layer of artificial reality to this multi-layered show, but we get four wonderful performers who get the Bell-Bowen-Blackwell-Blickenstaff vibe, and that’s something they share with director Meredith McDonough, who knows just when to pour on the musical theater cheese, when to ice the ironic asides and when to let some genuine emotion come burbling through the layers of self-aware cleverness.

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Ian Leonard and Jamison Stern are Jeff and Hunter respectively, and they make for quite the dynamic duo (although they’re more Robin the Boy Wonder crossed with Wonder Woman). Believable best friends and collaborators, their energy—Jeff is more uptight and precise, Hunter is more of a TV-obsessed slacker—plays off one another beautifully. They can be arch, ironic, sassy and heartfelt, and they both have big, bold voices.

Their co-stars, Laura Jordan as Susan and Farah Alvin as Heidi, add exactly the necessary dynamic to keep the show from becoming too self-indulgent. They both have wonderful voices—especially belter Alvin—and a sure sense of comic timing.

Musical director William Liberatore is actually a character onstage. He’s tucked in a corner of Kate Edmunds’ New York apartment set. He’s “Larry” (the name comes from original musical director Larry Pressgrove), and there are jokes about whether the actors’ union will actually let him speak on stage or if he has to sit over there mute but nimble of finger.

From the “Untitled Opening Number,” when they actually sing the names of the song’s opening notes, [title of show] creates a vortex of theater commenting on itself, to ever more hilarious effect. This is truly an original musical (a rarity these days), not based on a book or a movie, and it’s bracingly refreshing in its originality. Of course there are nods to musical theater greats throughout (Sondheim is especially revered), but this is a bold piece of theater that is the creative process and the finished product simultaneously. It’s almost too much, but Bell and Bowen have too much charm and too much heart to let the concept get away from them for 90 minutes.

The fact that this scrappy little show did actually make it to Broadway lends the perfect ending to what is essentially a contemporary spin on the old “let’s put on a show in the barn” dream which aims to change lives and realize fantasies. Being contemporary, it comes with a little self-help lesson in the form of “Die Vampire, Die!,” a song that details all the reasons people hold themselves down and never attempt to realize a dream—little things like fear of failure, low self-worth and a sturdy belief in all the horrible things anyone ever said about you.

From that song, on [title of show] becomes more than just a clever comedy. It’s about creativity, friendship and having fun and maintaining integrity. Just listening to the CD, before I saw the show, I didn’t quite get the song “A Way Back to Then,” (a big solo for Heidi). But hearing the song in context, it has become a new favorite.

I saw the show at a Sunday matinee, and my initial thought was, “Oh, this is exactly the wrong audience to appreciate this show.” Wrong. It was exactly the right audience—most of them, anyway. They got into it and (except for the two fogies in the front row who walked out just as the actors were taking their bows) seemed to love it. That’s the peculiar and wonderful magic of [title of show].

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The trailer for the TheatreWorks production.

TheatreWorks’ [title of show] continues through June 26 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $24-$42. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org for information.

TheatreWorks’ 2010-11 season is a wow!

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The original cast of [title of show] included (from left) Heidi Blickenstaff, Hunter Bell (seated), Jeff Bowen (top),
and Susan Blackwell. [title of show] will be presented as part of the 2010-2011 season at TheatreWorks. Photo by Carol Rosegg

If the new TheatreWorks season only contained[title of show], I would be thrilled. I wanted desperately for this “little musical that could” to have it’s pre-Broadway run in San Francisco, but creators Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen opted not to go out of town and head directly from off Broadway to on. The show didn’t exactly re-write Broadway history, but the original cast recording preserved a plucky show that, to some of us, is legendary in its wit and ambition.

But now this musical for people who love (and loathe and love to loathe) musicals is going to conclude the newly announced TheatreWorks season in June of 2011.

[title of show] isn’t the only treat in the season. After its run on Broadway this season, the Bay Area will get to sink its teeth into Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts, his well-received follow-up to the gazillion-award-winning August: Osage County. The play runs Oct. 6 to 31. And another Broadway hit (one that recently stopped in San Francisco on its national tour) takes steps to Mountain View. The 39 Steps, a lovingly comic spoof of the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name, opens in January of 2011.

TracyLettsYou can usually count on a TheatreWorks season to include a big, juicy musical, and the coming season is no exception. Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’ A Light in the Piazza, a stunning, sophisticated work of modern musical theater (with a score by Richard Rodgers’ eminently talented grandson, no less), opens Aug. 25.

The season also includes three world premieres, including season-opener Auctioning the Ainsleys by Laura Schellhardt about a family of auctioneers. Schellhardt’s The K of D was seen at the Magic Theatre.

The second world premiere is a holiday offering: a new musical adaptation of Truman Capote’s story A Christmas Memory with lyrics by Carol Hall (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), music by Larry Grossman and a book by Duane Poole. The show runs through most of the month of December.

The third world premiere is Rajiv Joseph’s psychological thriller The North Pool. Joseph is probably best known for his play Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo. His Animals Out of Paper is currently at SF Playhouse.

And finally, David Gutterson’s acclaimed novel Snow Falling on Cedars gets a theatrical adaptation (and a Bay Area premiere) in March 2011. Kevin McKeon of Book-It Repertory Theatre adapted and directed David Guterson’s masterful novel for the stage in Seattle three years ago.

For information about the TheatreWorks season call 650 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org. Subscriptions range from $149 to $441.

Photo at right: Tracy Letts, author of Superior Donuts. Photo courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre Co.

Bring [title of show] to SF!

There’s nothing more fun than an underdog musical.

[title of show] is just such a musical. It’s essentially a small (five-people, counting the keyboardist) musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical. It’s all very “meta” as the kids say. As creators Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell describe it, it’s “the show that eats its own tail.”

Well, word on the street is that producer Kevin McCollum (an original producer of the show along with Laura Camien and Vineyard Theatre) wants to take it to Broadway, which is a dreamy notion for a small musical that revels in all things musical theater (one song is all about flop musicals and mentions shows even I’ve never heard of, and I’m a certified show qu…er…enthusiast).

But how do you sell a show that’s essentially two guys (Bowen and Bell), two fabulous women (Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff) and a piano player (Larry Pressgrove), a few chairs and some really clever, funny, tuneful songs?

The answer seems to be, you sell it virally. The [title of show] crew has created a fantastic Web site, www.titleofshow.com, where they host, among other things, fabulous Webisodes, called “The [title of show] Show,” and podcasts, called [tos]casts and a blog called [blog].

If you watch the Webisodes, and I highly encourage it because they are well produced and funny (and full of inside jokes for Broadway people who know who Michael Berresse, the show’s original director and now star of the Chorus Line revival, or Barrett Foa, of Avenue Q, are), you’ll discover that Bowen and Bell want to take their show out of town for a tryout.

And though they’re cagey about where they’re taking it, one of the episodes mentions two cities by name: Chicago and SAN FRANCISCO.

So here’s what you need to do: go watch the videos and listen to the podcasts (and check out Bowen’s amazing musical theater-related crossword puzzles). Then send the boys a message that you want their show to come to San Francisco. Forward the Webisod URLs to your friends and post them in your Broadway chatrooms. Let’s get this viral thing working toward getting [title of show] to San Francisco for its pre-Broadway run.

Here’s the first episode to get you going: