|The cast of TCR’s [title of show]|
By James E. Trainor III
Photos by Len Struttman
Cedar Rapids – It’s three weeks from the deadline of the New York Theatre Musical Festival, and Hunter (Andrew Clancey) and Jeff (Aaron Murphy) are sitting around wondering what to write about. But instead of sitting around wondering what to write about, they’re writing about sitting around wondering what to write about. Wait a minute, let me rewrite that: [title of show] is a musical with the central premise that it’s being written as it’s being performed. So anything Hunter or Jeff, or their friends Heidi (Heather Akers) and Susan (Emma Drtina) say is going into the show. Including “Wonder Woman for President.”
It’s a deceptively simple premise that makes for some wonderful metatheatre and some immensely funny moments. At the same time, it’s a surprisingly moving document of a creative struggle made all the more real for its self-referential sense of humor and its clunky metaphors. TCR’s production, directed by Leslie Charipar (musical direction by Janelle Lauer; lyrics by Jeff Bowen and book by Hunter Bell), turns the Grandon Studio into a two-hour brainstorming session for four hip, funny, foul-mouthed artists, and all of it, from “Untitled Musical Number” to “Finale,” is done with an impressive level of passion and energy.
At some level, pulling any show together is largely a matter of having the right cast and a great space. Charipar has both: all four of these actors are skilled at playing the character moments, which is crucial for this show; and the black box in TCR’s lower level is an excellent place to play a minimalist, quirky, in-your-face musical. I use that word “musical” with care here; it’s something I tend to associate with huge houses and flashy dance numbers and mics that never work properly. [title of show] is technically (spoilers!) a Broadway musical, but I think of it as more of a postmodern musical: it’s a great story about four people trying to find their voices, which, by necessity, has some damn funny songs in it.
“Untitled Musical Number” does a wonderful job of poking fun at musical theatre tropes, with lyrics that simply explain the predictable tools the opening number is using:
So we’ll put in a syncopation
And we’ll add a quarter… note
And we’ll softly start the coda from a very tiny point
And then we’ll get a little louder to further emphasize the point
And then we’ll cross downstage toward you
And now we yell in fortissimo
Yell in fortissimo…
Yell in fortissimo…
This cast is very in tune with this witty, playful style, bringing buckets of energy to the stage and making sure all the jokes land. “Part of it All,” “What Kind of Girl Is She?” and “Montage Part 1: September Song,” play with expectations in similar ways, ironically hitting all the story notes that you expect from musical theatre: the ambitious young hero, the secondary characters that are suspicious of each other, the hectic energy when everything starts going right. At the same time, [title] attempts to push the musical form and deconstruct its safe, familiar structure. In a number played with broad comic strokes by Andrew Clancey, the Schoolhouse Rock spoof “An Original Musical” comments on the great number of Broadway musicals that have been adapted from movies. It’s refreshing to see a show that, even while sticking to a tried-and-true form, is willing to challenge that form from the inside, and putting on the same safe claptrap over and over.
|Heather Akers as Heidi|
|Emma Drtina as Susan|
So where does “original” art come from? Well, as corny as it sounds, it comes from the heart. It comes from putting in the work and saying something that’s true to you, and being bold enough to stick to it despite the heckling of the outside world. [title of show] is mainly about this creative process. In “Monkeys and Playbills,” we see brainstorming brought to life onstage, as Dritna sings solemnly about “image monkeys” taking us on a journey to tell a story (in a speedboat, no less) and Akers sings flow-of-consciousness lyrics based on the playbills Murphy is rifling through. Dritna’s flawless deadpan and Akers’ tireless energy make numbers like this hilarious. This is a silly musical that requires serious character work, and the cast is one of the major strengths of TCR’s production.
These four are clearly in tune with the piece and with each other, and are giving it their all. Murphy has excellent comic timing, and approaches the character of Jeff with a playful cattiness that is just delightful. He’s very precise with his choices; he takes a bit just far enough, then moves on to the next thing. Clancey counters this subtlety with a hilarious broadness; his Hunter is brash, loud, and irrepressibly driven. Murphy and Clancey play off each other well, and it’s easy to buy them as best friends.
Drtina’s intense presence as the sarcastic Susan commands attention, and her cautious anxiety is engaging to watch. She’s always fully in touch with the stage action; her nonverbals, especially the way she sizes up Heidi at the beginning, complete the character. Akers is perfect for Heidi; her enthusiasm is infectious, she responds really well to Drtina especially, and she’s not afraid to be completely silly for the sake of a bit. Forrest Green as Larry, the keyboard player who is occasionally brought into the scene, completes the ensemble; he’s funny, and he’s completely engaged in the part.
They’re all great actors individually, and the way they pay attention to each other makes this a wonderful ensemble piece. The first half of the show is full of one-liners and pop-culture references, which could easily get old, but the actors commit to the characters and this cements the piece together and keeps the action moving. The second half, which deals with the stresses of success and the personality conflicts that come up in any collaboration, is therefore a lot more real and engaged: though there are still plenty of jokes, accusations are flying and feelings are getting hurt. The character work pays off, and “Awkward Photo Shoot,” while very very fun, is also tense and sad. The drama in these later scenes is highlighted by the fact that the actors are so close; you can see every eye roll, every smirk, the subtlest reactions.
Charipar’s direction brings out the best of [title], in part because she uses the space well. A potential problem with Grandon is that it’s packed very tightly; ninety seats box the actors in on three sides, which can easily interfere with sight lines. Charipar makes the best of this, though, keeping the cast moving and placing pivotal action at the most effective spots. As it seems there’s nowhere for the actors to go, you might expect static blocking or neck-craning “what’s going on” moments as they get in each other’s way, but that rarely, if ever, happens here. Grandon’s first musical showcases its potential, and reminds us why TCR decided to build a black box: for all its minimalism, [title of show] is much bigger here than it would be in a big auditorium.
|Andrew Clancey as Hunter|
|Aaron Murphy as Jeff|
The other reason the direction works is that Charipar really understands why people care about this piece. Sure, it’s funny, and it’s crude, and it’s got plenty of in-jokes for clever theatre people, but what’s at its center isn’t simply dick jokes and Rent references; what’s at its center is the need we all have to be ourselves, and show the world what we can do. For an artist, it’s vital to be able to face down your own insecurities, the “vampires” in the outside world, and the dangers of compromise that success brings. Underneath all that crap, Bowen and Bell tell us,
You’re that little girl
With her wings unfurled
Back in your backyard dancing
It’s very awkward, and not very hip, for such an irreverent, crass musical to pivot on such a tearjerky moment. One could say it’s corny, but I think it’s bolder than all the “f-bombs” you can drop. As Akers sings the lines, there’s no hamming or winking at the triteness of the metaphor. The moment is simply played for what it is: a reminder to be true to your younger self, the little kid who had the balls to dream big.
If you’ve never seen or heard [title of show], you should check out TCR’s production and see what all the fuss is about. If you’re one of those nine people who list [title of show] as your favorite thing, you should take a trip to the Grandon: I assure you, TCR got it right. The opening weekend is sold out, but the show’s run continues until March 9. Tickets and further information here.