Tuesday Night Café’s first production of the academic year sets the bar high for shows to come: [title of show] is a hilariously entertaining, whimsical effort that manages to achieve emotional depth and self-reflection.
[title of show] is a musical comedy, as directors Julian Silverman and Dane Stewart described, “about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical.” Although you may be thinking that you’ve done a lifetime’s worth of thinking about layers within layers within layers after Inception, [title of show] manages a level of metatheatricality that rivals Shakespeare, while at the same time smoothly chronicling the day-to-day pleasures and challenges of writing an off-Broadway musical.
The show follows two gay pop culture and musical theatre-crazy friends in New York (Ben Harris and Michael Grundland) who are bored with their day jobs and are looking to pull out the sonatas and reach fame by writing an original show for a festival. Singing their way through the writing process, they recruit two cast members (Caitlyn Milot and Bryna Weiss), resulting in an awkward but tight-knit family who set out to escape the triviality of everyday life through musical theatre. The songs themselves aren’t thrilling, but they serve their purpose in a musical that is really about more than music. In a way, [title of show] is like watching a behind-the-scenes, “making-of” a musical that takes the constant frustrations and personal anxieties of the writer’s creative process and places them in the magical world of song and dance.
Director Julian Silverman takes the metatheatrical theme a step further by allowing the actors to use their own names onstage (although the producers insist that they are still playing the original script’s roles of Hunter, Heidi, Jeff, and Susan), bridging the gap between the audience and the characters. This decision, according to Silverman, “really made the show feel like our own,” but it also forces the audience to recall the countless times that they themselves have been immersed in a similar process of creation. By leaving visible the show’s levels of production, the audience is able to submerge itself critically but also quite self-reflexively – unlike most musicals, [title of show] is not only a spectacle, but also the realization that musical theatre is a spectacle. Now that’s metatheatre, for you.
Silverman must have been somewhat limited in his choices for stage design by the script’s constant self-references (e.g. “We only have four chairs”). But this simple staging of four chairs and a keyboard both gives [title of show] its distinctive off-off-Broadway vibe and allows the cast to embody the various effects and emotions that in larger productions are conveyed through elaborate stage designs and devices.
With such a small cast and simple set, each actor is given ample time on stage to show off their comic, dramatic and vocal talents, but the strength of the cast lies in their group dynamic and their ability to perform as a cohesive whole. In a hilarious early number and one of the show’s most memorable of an otherwise fairly forgettable list of songs, Ben plays a sassy-ass piece of blank paper in “An Original Musical.” In “Monkeys and Playbills,” Caitlyn and Bryna appear and disappear throughout the theatre as spectres for ideas and inspiration, until they get called out for it and return to normal. Even Michael, the most idealistic and realist of characters, can’t help but be absorbed by the power of theatre as he proclaims with Ben and Bryna, “We’ll sing backup!” for “Die, Vampire, Die!”
In the end, what really comes across is the degree to which the cast and crew seem to have really had fun putting this together. At its bones, that’s what a musical is all about. The fact that [title of show] is able to do this while explicitly bringing up the struggles and pressures of the theatre industry is a sign of hard work, but most importantly the love of musical theatre.