Friday, July 18, 2008

ATW Review - After Years of Development, [title of show] Reaches Broadway, Delightfully

Something interesting and thoroughly unique happens in the telling the history of Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell's joyful musical [title of show]; as the piece's four-year development process is related, the plot description of the show also unfolds.

Bowen and Bell wrote this intimate show about writing a musical for the New York Musical Theater Festival (NYMF) and the piece debuted in that Festival in 2004. Subsequently, 'show' was developed at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut and, then, it ran off-Broadway in an extended, and ultimately commercial, run at the Vineyard Theatre in 2006. Last night, nearly a full four years since Bowen and Bell developed the piece for NYMF, [title of show] opened on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre. It's not for nothing that there's a reason why there PLAYBILL cover for 'show' is a picture of the production's PLAYBILL; this is a delightful New York theater industry hall of mirrors.

Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen in ['title of show]'
Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen in [title of show]
Photo: Carol Rosegg

At this juncture, most New Yorkers have heard something about the piece with book by Bell and music and lyrics by Bowen (they also play themselves in "show"). It's been profiled extensively during its many incarnations, reviewed repeatedly, and in the time since its off-Broadway run, been the subject of an online video project "the [title of show] show" – also created by and featuring Bowen and Bell.

Theatergoers' familiarity with the piece and its history, though, does not dampen the joy that comes with experiencing the musical. There's a freshness and irreverence that's inherent to the material that captures one on both a first visit and return trips. Given that the last third or so of the show has been redeveloped to reflect what's taken place in both the lives of the creators and their co-stars (Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff) and the development of the show itself, event those people who caught "show" two years ago, will be in for a few surprises. Blickenstaff's need to juggle "show" and her work in Broadway's The Little Mermaid, for instance, has been added in to the musical for its Broadway engagement.

But it's not just the story of writing the musical that is found here. Bell's book contains almost Pirandellian layering (which has been perfectly calibrated by director and choreographer Michael Berresse). Bowen's infectious score contains an equal number of Escher-like twists and turns. Many of his songs pull one in and out of the action of writing the piece and performing it (which very quickly blurs into one sort of gleeful haze).

Within this haze there are a multitude of showbiz jokes and insider quips, ranging from a strain of the ill-fated musical Henry, Sweet Henry to random lines from Into the Woods. There's a running joke in the show about the actresses whom Bell and Bowen invite to participate in the project. Periodically between scenes, an answering machine beep signals a message that they've received from a Broadway diva. These voiceovers can be hysterical.

Heidi Blickenstaff, Susan Blackwell, Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen in ['title of show]'
Heidi Blickenstaff, Susan Blackwell, Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen in ['title of show]
Photo: Carol Rosegg

"show" also has enormous heart – Bell and Bowen have written what might be one of the ultimate valentines to not only musical theater, but also to the people who love them, and in instances like this, create them. Bowen's ode to the dreams that young people have about becoming part of the city's theatrical community – "A Way Back to Then" – truly encapsulates the soft and truly endearing emotional center that's the heart of "show."

As the piece unfolds within the confines of a rehearsal room with four mismatched chairs (from scenic designer Neil Patel), Bell, Blackwell, Blickenstaff and Bowen – along with accompanist Larry Pressgrove – prove both amusing and touching, and in the case of Bell and Bowen, who rarely leave the stage, indefatigable. Perhaps most important, the quartet manges to navigate the hairpin turns of the piece's various realities, even as they deliver Bell's quips with aplomb and Bowen's songs with gusto.

Susan Blackwell, Jeff Bowwn, Heidi Blackwell and Hunter Bell ['title of show]'
Susan Blackwell, Jeff Bowwn, Heidi Blickenstaff and Hunter Bell ['title of show]
Photo: Carol Rosegg

When combined, the performers' verve and the production's ability to navigate the script's quicksilver tone changes make [title of show] a truly refreshing and winning night at the theater. It's great to finally have this piece on Broadway.

---- Andy Propst


[title of show plays at the Lyceum Theatre (149 West 45th Street). Performances are Monday, Tuesday and Friday at 8pm; Saturday at 3 and 8pm; and Sunday at 3 and 7:30pm. Tickets are $26.50 - $101.50 and can be purchased by calling 212-239-6200 or by visiting Further information is available online at

No comments: