Balagan's [title of show]
Curly Stache’s latest production, [title of show], is self-described by writer and lead character Hunter Bell as “a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical.” To explain the show’s history is to summarize the plot, because the show tells the story of its own inception and subsequent success.
In short, [title of show], which is back at the Balagan by popular demand after a run in May, is a musical written by musical theatre geeks about musical theatre geeks, for musical theatre geeks. Particularly gay musical theatre geeks living in New York City. (The show opens with an anecdote about trannies stealing shrimp in Chelsea and continues with a running joke about drag names—“Tulita Pepsi” was a personal favorite.)
As the show’s writers, Hunter and Jeff, Brian Lange and Ryan McCabe make a hilariously endearing “show-mo” duo that is almost as obsessed with bad television as they are musical theatre. It only gets better with the addition of Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako’s hugely talented but perpetual chorus girl Heidi, and Kate Jaeger’s quirky, snarky, fed-up-with-her-day-job Susan.
The foursome’s journey from the New York Musical Theatre Festival to the off-Broadway Vineyard theatre to their 2008 Broadway run allows them to explore self-referential themes of artistic creation as well as the emotional rollercoaster of dealing with their own success. How can they kill the “vampires” of self-doubt? Is it worth making compromises to get the show on Broadway? Should they take the role of Heidi away from Heidi and give it to Sutton Foster? Does that mean they’d have to re-write the whole thing? Worst of all, what if their show turns out to be “donuts for dinner”—all fluff and no substance?
It’s no surprise Bell’s book and Bowen’s lyrics earned them three Obies and a Tony nomination. The writing has the snappy, colorful quality associated with Emmy award-winning sitcoms and highly caffeinated brunches between close friends. When Jeff warns Hunter that a guy he’s eyeing is straight, Hunter quips, “Well, so is spaghetti until it gets hot and wet.” The show is also unrelentingly self-referential—the characters regularly break the fourth wall to address the keyboard player, Larry (a perfectly nonchalant Chris Distefano), and one scene ends with the acknowledgement “this scene is feeling a little long,” followed by a blackout.
One keyboard and four chairs are the only set pieces and the actors wear everyday clothes (a stars wars T-shirt, a pair of Toms). Both the choreography and staging (from director Jeff Orton) feel natural and lively—there are plenty of jazz hands, kick lines and added physical innuendo. All four actors have strong voices that blend well together, although Nako and Jaeger stand out with some of the most memorable songs: the inspirational, Motown, “Die Vampire, Die!“ and Heidi’s nostalgic ode to childhood dreams, “A Way Back to Then.” At an hour and 45 minutes, the show does begin to lag and at times you wish the writers had made good on their promises to cut—or at least included an intermission.
Part of the show’s conceit is that in the Broadway and touring versions the actors are playing themselves—a meta element that, for the most part, is lost in any regional versions. Still, it’s hard to imagine that the original actors could have played versions of themselves any more likeable than those created by Lange, McCabe, Nako and Jaeger.
In fact, where the show loses one layer of self-reference it gains another. After all, it is only in being played by other actors—by other musical theatre geeks like themselves—that the show’s writers finally become the “mold” they set out to create. This is the next step in the show’s perpetual evolution and Hunter, Jeff, Heidi, and Susan have companies like Curly Stache Productions to thank for taking them out West.
[title of show] may not be the filet mignon that is Les Mis or the lox-laden bagel of The Producers, but there is definitely meat on those donuts. Especially when they’re served up by local theatre talent that knows how to dig in.
[title of show] plays at the Erickson Theatre, June 15–17.