True grit, humor and heart in ‘[title of show]’
Doug Peck at the piano, standing, McKinley Carter, (left), and Christine Sherrill, and seated, Matthew Crowle, (left), and Stephen Schellhardt in "[title of show]." | Photo by Michael Brosilow
‘[title of show]’
Northlight Theatre, in the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 29 only; 1 p.m. Wednesdays (except May 23) and 7:30 p.m. (except May 30); 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays (except May 20 and June 10), through June 10
$25-$65; Young Adult tickets (25 and under) $10. Call (847) 673-6300 or visit www.northlight.org
Salon Series, a panel discussion led by local experts, will be held at 1 p.m. May 20. Reservations are required;
call (847) 679-9501, ext. 3555
Updated: May 15, 2012 6:37PM
“[title of show]” just may be the most self-referentially meta-musical ever writ.
Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell’s (book) musical is about two guys named Jeff and Hunter struggling to create a musical titled “[title of show].” And while theater nerds will delight in the countless inside, (and sometimes self-described “obscure”) references to the musical theater, “[title of show]” is not just a show for Broadway geeks.
It matters not if you don’t know “Hairspray” from “Hedwig.” “[title of show]” is a delight from start to finish as it captures the agony and the ecstasy of creating art that will sell without selling out.
Don’t let the small (four characters plus a pianist) cast size and minimal set (four chairs in an otherwise empty room) dissuade you from taking in this charming, very funny, and amusingly/realistically foul-mouthed musical. The language in “[title of show]” may be blue, but it’s also undeniably authentic. Crafting a musical from blank page to staged performance is not for the faint of heart or the pure of ears.
Moreover, “[title of show]” is that rarest of rare theatricals: built from scratch, with nary a Disney movie or a comic book to provide a template.
The travails of Hunter (Matthew Crowle) and Jeff (Stephen Schellhardt) (“two nobodies in New York)” as they struggle against overwhelming odds to get their little show produced without special effects/stunt casting/a budget/dumbing it down is emblematic of the struggle of underdogs and impractical dreamers everywhere. You’re rooting for them before they get the first song under control.
The four-person musical about making a four-person musical also features the substantial talents of McKinley Carter and Christine Sherrill as Susan and Heidi, the former working in a soul-crushing day job she titles “Corporate Whore,” the latter making the grueling rounds of the audition circuit in hopes of securing an understudy/ensemble/assistant to the assistant dance captain role.
In one particularly sharp scene, Heidi describes making it to the final three for a bit replacement part in “Mama Mia,” only to lose out because the costume wasn’t in her size.
Susan, meanwhile, has the razor sharp tongue and deeply embedded cynicism of someone who has burnt out trying to get support herself in theater and succumbed to the numbing stability of a low-level receptionist gig.
Director Peter Amster elicits utterly believable and engaging performances from his cast. The ensemble nails the wry, irreverent humor of the piece but they also bring a collective passion and yearning to it.
We see these artists at their most cynical and their most inspiring. Art isn’t easy, and in creating it one inevitably encounters potentially crippling self-doubt and the lure of dubious compromises. Staying true to yourself and the integrity of your ideas is an uphill battle that “[title of show]” astutely explores.
“[title of show]” also benefits from the gifted musical direction of Doug Peck, who plays keyboard throughout and gets some of the evening’s funniest lines.
Those who know musical theater like they know how to read will find themselves laughing out loud throughout “[title of show]” Watch Carter exit midway through the piece with what is arguably The. Most. Hilarious. Sondheim reference ever.
Also listen for Sherrill’s achingly wonderful delivery of “Way Back to When,” a song that captures all the lost innocence of youthful dreams and the adult pursuit of reclaiming them. Carter is in fine voice as well, nailing both the humor and the truth of self-doubt in “Die, Vampires, Die.”
As for Crowle and Schellhardt, they play off each other with the ease and timing of a long-time comedy team — the crucial difference being their interaction never feels like shtick.
It’s worth noting that “[title of show]” comes with a built in happy ending. In real life, the show went from utter obscurity to Broadway, eventually nabbing a Tony nomination for Best Book.
That it got so far without compromise — no excising the swearwords, no over-produced production values, no cast of dozens, no Sutton Foster in the role created for Heidi —is a testament to creativity and perseverance. It also makes “[title of show]” as inspirational as it is tuneful and oh, so very funny.