[title of show]

In the spring of 2004, New York City writing partners Hunter Bell and Jeff 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 book scoring a Tony nomination.  How’s that for life imitating art?

[title of show] now gets its West Coast Premiere at San Diego’s Diversionary theater, with a foursome of S.D.’s finest musical theater talent stepping into the roles of Hunter, Jeff, Susan, and Heidi. The result is a production that provides a) non-stop hilarity, b) bouncy songs with some inspired lyrics, and c) a quartet of sparkling performances.

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 Diversionary. 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.)

Diversionary Theatre made the perfect choice of directors in James Vasquez, who also choreographed [title of show]’s musical sequences.  As he did in last summer’s Twist, Vasquez directs with imagination and flair, his dance steps are spiffy and original, and as to his cast, simply put they could not be better.

Jeff is played by Twist himself, Tom Zohar, the gifted young San Diego actor about to make the move to New York following a string of local successes which include his unforgettable work in the 2008 West Coast Premiere of Yank! (now Broadway bound). Diversionary gem Tony Houck (out-and-out brilliant in Scrooge In Rouge) is Hunter, Karson St. John (who wowed San Diego audiences in The Little Dog Laughed) is Susan, and the wonderful Heather Paton of I Love You Because is Heidi.

I love this cast.  They not only do absolutely terrific work individually but have amazing chemistry when working together, particularly Zohar and Houck, whose real-life friendship (both were in Yank! and Twist) makes their onstage relationship believable from their very first exchange, when Hunter calls Jeff to report that “A trannie stole my shrimp.” Zohar gives Jeff a delightful dryness that makes for a perfect contrast with Houck’s adorable sweetness.  St. John radiates charisma and sass as Susan, and Paton brings an earthy warmth to Heidi.  All four are first-rate singers as well, with Paton getting the best vehicle for her gorgeous pipes, the moving ballad, “A Way Back To Then.”

Other musical highlights include the very blond Houck’s jive-talking F-word-sprinkled performance as Blank Paper in “An Original Musical,” one which prompts Jeff to ask “Is this character black?” to which Hunter responds “Motherfucker, I can be anything you want me to be.” The girls get their center-stage moments in “I Am Playing Me” and “Secondary Characters” (the titles are self-explanatory). “Nine People’s Favorite Thing” ties up the evening with Bell and Bowen’s personal philosophy, which is not a bad one to have at all.

Musical director/keyboardist Tim McKnight does impeccable work as onstage accompanist “Larry,” who even gets to say a few words once Hunter and Jeff get things worked out “with the union.”  Matt Scott’s just right scenic design situates the action in a nearly bare New York rehearsal space with show posters adorning the walls.  Karen Filijan’s lighting design, Vasquez’s costume choices, and David Medina’ properties give the show just the right look and feel. Bret Young is production manager, Beth Gallagher is stage manager, and Catherine Miller is dramaturg.

[title of show] opens Diversionary’s 2010-11 season on a high note indeed. Admittedly, the more you know about musical theater, the more you’ll relish [title of show] many in-jokes, making it the perfect musical for show queens of any gender or sexual orientation, but even those who don’t know Steve and Eydie’s Golden Rainbow from McDonald’s Golden Arches will find much to relish in this hilarious, tuneful 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.

Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, San Diego. 

–Steven Stanley
July 10, 2010
                                                                             Photos: Ken Jacques


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