By Richard Ades
I arrive at the Riffe Center’s Studio Three and prepare to watch CATCO’s cabaret-style production of [title of show]. The intimate room is a pleasant place to watch theater, but I have my doubts about whether I should be watching this particular piece of theater.
My trepidation stems from what I’ve heard about Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell’s offbeat musical, which first appeared in 2004, had an off-Broadway run in 2006 and finally turned up on Broadway for about three months in 2008. What I’ve heard is that the show is loaded with inside jokes and references that only gay, theater-obsessed New Yorkers can fully appreciate.
As the show begins, my fears seem justified. Some jokes fly right by me, while others just don’t seem that funny. Several audience members seem equally mystified—indeed, I can see one woman across the room who doesn’t crack a smile for the entire two hours and 10 minutes.
However, a small group of viewers makes up for this by laughing at nearly everything the cast does. Looking around, I realize that most of the laughs are coming from four men sitting in a tight circle. To be sure, many viewers chuckle or at least smile at various jokes, but this quartet supplies the bulk of the audience response.
So what is this show that appeals—intentionally, as it turns out—to such a select audience? It’s basically a musical about putting on a musical. Composer/lyricist Bowen and book writer Bell wanted to enter a show in an upcoming theater festival, and since they didn’t have any ideas, they decided to make the show its own subject.
A bit self-indulgent, don’t you think? Like the theatrical equivalent of a taking a selfie? Yes, and some of the early humor acknowledges that fact by focusing on the creators’ superficiality. In particular, the show’s version of Hunter is loath to begin a new project because he’s too involved in watching TV’s The Bachelor and Project Runway.
If the musical has any depth and universal meaning, it involves the participants’ desire to do something that would finally allow them to make theater the center of their existences. The self-doubt that prevents all of us from taking necessary chances in life is lampooned in one of the better songs, Die, Vampire, Die.
Back to Studio Three: As I watch the musical unfold under Joe Bishara’s direction, I admire both the cast’s singing and the keyboard work of accompanist Quinton Jones. But I also think the actors are portraying their characters with mixed success. That’s especially true of two female friends who join Jeff and Hunter’s project.
Elisabeth Zimmerman—who played one of my favorite characters in CATCO’s wonderful 2013 production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee—is entertaining as Heidi, to the extent that the thinly written role allows her to be. However, Annie Huckaba never quite gels as Susan, instead coming off as a caricature of playful quirkiness.
As for the men, Bradley Johnson is tastefully flamboyant as Hunter, while Jonathan Collura balances him out nicely as the more down-to-earth Jeff. It’s only in the later stages of the play that I begin to think Collura’s Jeff should have shown more passion for their shared project from the beginning. Maybe then the argument that arises late in Act 2 would be more convincing.
Truthfully, though, it’s unfair to blame the actors for anything that happens in Act 2.
The act didn’t even exist when the musical first opened, having been written to explain how the show and its creators changed as it moved to off-Broadway and finally to Broadway itself. Watching the second act in Studio Three, I quickly decide that adding it was a mistake.
And I’m not alone, judging from the audience’s reaction. Even the four biggest laughers are noticeably quiet as Jeff, Hunter, Susan and Heidi argue endlessly about whether they’ll ever get the show to Broadway and whether all of them will still be on board if and when it gets there.
Finally, Hunter suggests it’s time to bring the elongated show to an end, noting, “We can’t keep adding everything that happens to us.” It’s a brilliant insight, though it’s hard not to wish it had occurred to him about half an hour earlier.
Then again, I’m hardly in a position to throw that particular stone. It’s now been days since I saw the show, and I can’t find a way to finish this review, which already has dragged on for way too long.
Should I mention that, while watching the show, I kept thinking Zimmerman was playing Susan because she reminded me so much of the short-lived Seinfeld character of the same name? No, chances are no one else will make the connection, and really, who cares?
I guess I should just finish by addressing the all-important question: Will you enjoy the show? Maybe, maybe not. The creators themselves admit it won’t appeal to everyone, declaring in the finale that they’d rather be “nine people’s favorite thing than 100 people’s ninth-favorite thing.”
It should be obvious by now that [title of show] isn’t my favorite thing, my ninth-favorite thing or even my 90th-favorite thing. But who knows? Maybe it will be your favorite thing—at least until the second act.
CATCO is presenting an open-ended run of [title of show] in Studio Three of the Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $35, $180 for a reserved table of four; a limited number of $15 student tickets will be available two hours before curtain. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.