[title of show]

West Hollywood’s Celebration Theatre celebrates its twenty-eighth year of presenting quality live theater to the LGBTQQIA community—and has its third big musical hit in just the past twelve months—with the Los Angeles Premiere of Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen’s award-winning off-Broadway hit [title of show]. Directed with consummate panache by Celebration Artistic Director Michael A. Shepperd, [title of show] is the perfect musical for show queens of any gender or sexual orientation.

But first a bit of back story:

In the spring of 2004, New York City writing partners Bell and Bowen sat down to create a new musical in just three weeks, that being precisely the period of time remaining before the New York Musical Theatre Festival’s submission deadline. Joined by friends (and fellow performers) Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff, the quartet met the deadline with a 90-minute musical about itself, from its first spark of inspiration to its opening night on Broadway. As for the show’s title, having rejected such candidates as Festival Of Dreams, Your Arms Too Short To Write This Musical, and RENTT (with two t’s), the creative team decided to stick with what was on the application form: [title of show]. And wonder of wonders, their dream became a reality. 

Following its World Premiere at the Festival, [title of show] opened off-Broadway (where Bell and Bowen both won the Obie Award) and eventually transferred to Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, with Bell’s hilarious book scoring a Tony nomination. How’s that for life imitating art?

Many of [title of show]’s best and biggest laughs come from its awareness that it is a musical about writing the very same musical the audience is seeing unfold before its eyes. Take for example this exchange:

HUNTER:  What if the first scene is just us talking about what to write? We could put this exact conversation in the show. JEFF: Wait, so everything I say from now on could actually be in our show?  HUNTER: Yeah. JEFF: Like this? HUNTER: Like this. JEFF:  And this? HUNTER: And this. JEFF:  This too? HUNTER: This too. JEFF:  So I could say “Wonder Woman For President,” and that would get in our show?  HUNTER: Uh-huh.  JEFF: Wonder Woman For President. I’d watch a show that says that.  HUNTER: Me too.

Other deliciously clever moments include Hunter’s remark, “Right now I think we need to get out of this scene because it feels too long,” immediately followed by (what else?) a blackout. Later, there’s the song “Monkeys And Playbills,” which has Susan and Heidi figuring in Hunter and Jeff’s dream, after which Hunter asks the girls what they think of the dream sequence, prompting Heidi to remark, “I’m sorry. Are we in this scene now?” Another brilliant moment occurs when Heidi wonders, “If the finished script is in that envelope, should we still be talking?” Guess what? Blackout.

[title of show] makes for the perfect “post-gay” season opener for the Celebration. Bell and Bowen are both out performers, and though the show has a very gay sensibility in its fascination with musical theater (and drag queen names), the show isn’t about being gay, and the writers’ sexual orientation is only referred to a couple times, as when a discussion of Broadway/West End trivia prompts Heidi to ask, “Is it me or did it just get like three degrees gayer in here?”  Later on, Hunter remarks on “that cutie in the red shirt,” Jeff warns him that the guy is straight, and Hunter quips, “Well, so is spaghetti until it gets hot and wet.”  (I have to remember that line.)

The cast assembled for [title of show]’s L.A. premiere is as vocally strong as it gets.  Jennifer R. Blake (Susan), Jeffrey Landman (Jeff), Micah McCain (Hunter), and Carey Peters (Heidi) all have terrific pipes, and when harmonizing, they fill the Celebration with a glorious sound that hasn’t been heard since…well, since The Women Of Brewster Place, which only closed a few weeks ago.  In addition to Blake’s vocal gifts, the recent star of Side By Side By Sondheim combines beauty and comic flair to make the part of Susan adorably, quirkily her own.  Landman, who started his career as a child on Broadway, has blossomed into one of L.A.’s most uniquely gifted musical theater stars, as exemplified by the depth of his performance as Jeff and his crackerjack comic timing.  As Heidi, recent Chicago-to-L.A. transplant Peters is a real find, combining charisma, acting chops, and one of the most powerful high belts you’re likely to hear in any show this year. Though McCain’s relative inexperience in scripted musical theater is evidenced by lines not yet fully mastered on opening night, his performance will likely gel as the run continues. Already he brings a goofy charm and a strong voice and stage presence to Hunter.  

Onstage musical director Gregory Nabours not only provides impeccable keyboard accompaniment but has great fun with the role of “Larry,” whether thumbing bored through a magazine during Hunter, Jeff, Susan, and Heidi’s shenanigans or learning to his satisfaction that talks with “the union” now allow him to actually say a few lines in the show. (Note: Larry is based on [tos]’s real-life musical director Larry Pressgrove.)

Earlier this year, choreographer Ameenah Kaplan won the LA Weekly Award for the brilliantly original dance steps she gave the Celebration’s Altar Boyz.  Though [title of show] is far less dancy by nature, Kaplan does her accustomed fine work in staging its musical numbers with imagination and flair. 

Kurt Boetcher’s set design is possibly his simplest ever—four walls painted jet black and a stage occupied only by four distinctly different chairs and Nabours’ keyboard—but it’s precisely the right set for [title of show] at the Celebration, placing us in a time/space limbo where lighting director Matthew Brian Denman can work his magic, creating one of his most complex (and stunning) lighting designs yet. (Watch for the way the stage goes quickly red at the mention of Carrie The Musical.) Thumbs up to Veronica J. Lancaster’s sound design, Raffel Sarabia’s choice of costumes for the four characters, and Michael O’Hara’s props. 

The roles of Hunter and Jeff are covered by understudy Michael Joyce, Kerri-Anne Lavin covers Susan, and Heidi is understudied by Cindy Sciacca.  Nik Roybal is assistant director, Landman dance captain, and Mercedes Clanton production stage manager. [title of show] is produced by the Celebration Theatre in association with David Elzer.  Tijuana Gray and Jim Halloran are producers and Erick Long associate producer.

The Celebration Theatre’s 28th season looks to be one of its strongest ever, with the Baseball-Players-Stark-Naked-In-The-Locker-Room hit Take Me Out coming up next in September. [title of show] opens Season 28 with a bang. Admittedly, the more you know about musical theater, the more you’ll relish [tos]’s many in-jokes, but even those who don’t know 1954’s The Golden Apple (music by Jerome Moross, book and lyrics by John La Touche) from McDonald’s Golden Arches will want to stand up and cheer this thoroughly original musical hit.

PS:  Check out this “[tos]sary” of some of [tos]’s more obscure terms and you’ll be fully prepared to enjoy [title of show] to the max.

Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 

–Steven Stanley
July 16, 2010
                                                                                           Photos: David Elzer

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