I’m not the target audience for Mauckingbird Theatre Company’s Philadelphia premier of “[title of show]”, now onstage UPstairs at the Adrienne Theatre.
I’ve never been the biggest fan of musicals. “Why are they singing now?” I ask myself, or “Isn’t this number just filler until the next dialog comes?” So I was pleasantly surprised to find my tempered expectations mostly exceeded by this easy-to-watch show, with solid if not spectacular tunes and casual comedy.
Certainly, this is a work someone more versed in Broadway musical lore would enjoy much more. There must be about six dozen references to Broadway shows, old and new, and I understood only about a third of those I picked up. I suspect the Philadelphia theatergoers whose tastes would best be suited to [title of show] will be waiting for the next Kimmel Center Broadway visit to the Academy of Music or Merriam, but they would be well rewarded by this Mauckingbird production. It’s a musical for Broadway musical lovers.
The play’s genesis came when Broadway aspirants Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell decided to write a musical in three weeks for entrance into the New York Musical Theatre Festival. The piece they submitted was about writing a musical in three weeks for entrance into the New York Musical Theatre Festival. On the festival’s entrance form, where it asked for the “title of show,” they entered “[title of show].”
The first, more successful half of the show, revolves around Jeff (Ben Dibble) and Hunter (Michael Philip O’Brien) struggling to write their submission and questioning the nature and relevance of their creation. They are aided by two female friends, played here by Kim Carson and Kate Brennan — a supporting cast that comprises the two standout female actors of the Philadelphia-area stage last season, in my reckoning; Carson for her Cordelia in the People Light and Theatre’s King Lear and Brennan for her Harper in BCKSEET Production’s Angels in America I & II.
In this production, Brennan is irrepressibly appealing as the filterless Susan and Carson shows off her vocal prowess to satisfying result as the sassy Heidi (and has in a brief shirtless second, “every straight guy in the audience’s favorite moment,” as a character puts it). Rounding out the cast is Mat Wright as the mostly non-talking Larry (he’s also the show’s musical director).
There is a laugh-out-loud moment and a thought-provoking comment in almost every scene, and the early songs are well constructed and well sung. Nevertheless, there are problems with both the musical and this production. Despite containing the moments of peak dramatic tension and the night’s one really catchy number (“Nine People’s Favorite Thing”), the songs and action of the second half seem contrived and hasty.
The plotline mirrors the musical’s real-life trajectory. As the play moved to an off-Broadway run and eventually to a stand at the Lyceum Theatre, Hunter and Dibble updated their work to reflect the show’s changing fortunes. The creators/actors played dramatized versions of themselves creating the work in which they were then appearing.
For the Mauckingbird show, the situation is more convoluted. We have actors playing actors playing themselves pretending to be in a Broadway show about creating that Broadway show. This is a tough sell, and despite the actors’ talents and efforts, they mostly fail to convince.
The stage design (Kyle Melton) is just a touch more elaborate than in the original — a convincing living room set instead of four plain chairs and a keyboard. This solidity in scenery, and the lack of Broadway-camp of the acting, hinders our ability to believe that we are seeing a Broadway production. Perhaps the piece should be updated again. A successful rewrite would see it returned to a piece about writing for a musical under a three-week deadline, the engaging subject of the play’s first half.
That said, and despite my pre-conceived reservations, [title of show] provides an interesting examination of the creative process and is worth a look by any Broadway an. It stays entertaining, from the “Untitled Opening Number” to the dying notes of “this is the last line of the show.”
[title of show]
by Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book)
Mauckingbird Theatre Company
UPstairs stage at the Adrienne Theatre
through January 30
Published by Philly2Philly.
[title of show] cast L-R: Kate Brennan, Michael Philip O’Brien, Kim Carson, Ben Dibble. Photo by John Flak
[title of show] cast L-R: Michael Philip O’Brien and Ben Dibble. Photo by John Flak
[title of show] cast L-R: Kim Carson, Ben Dibble, Kate Brennan, Mat Wright (on keys), Michael Philip O’Brien. Photo by John Flak