[title of show]

Following last fall’s gem of a production of Adam Gwon’s Ordinary Days, the students of Cal State Fullerton’s prestigious Musical Theater BFA program have returned to Santa Ana’s blackbox Grand Central Theatre for Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen’s [title of show], which like Ordinary Days serves as a couldn’t-be-better showcase for a quartet of triple-threats (two juniors and two seniors) on their way to successful careers in musical theater.

521654_10201527420366489_630041977_n Andrew Sattler and Edgar Lopez play real-life co-writers Hunter and Jeff, who in the spring of 2004 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 how [title of show] came to life, from its first spark of inspiration to its Opening Night. 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.

Since then, [title of show] has gone on to off-Broadway, where Bell and Bowen both won the Obie Award, transferred to Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, with Bell’s book scoring a Tony nomination, and since then gone on to become a regional and student theater favorite. 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.

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, in the song “Monkeys And Playbills,” Susan and Heidi (Mallory Staley and Caitlin Humphreys playing the real-life pair) show up 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.

Finally, though [title of show] is not at all about being gay, the writers’ sexual orientation does get 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?”, or when 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.”

Since production budgets for CSUF’s Grand Central Theatre shows make shoestring look like rope, [title of show] proves a perfect, couldn’t-be-cheaper-to-produce choice, with Bell and Bowen’s book specifying a scenic design of four chairs, that and a piano or keyboard for the fictional show’s accompanist Larry to tickle the ivories, a role played here by musical director Mitch Hanlon.

All that’s needed in addition to the above is a director with vision (Kari Hayter being just that director) and a cast who can have us from hello to [tos]’s goodbye fadeout ninety minutes later.

Hayter not only elicits sparkling performances from her ensemble of four, she directs and choreographs them with abundant imagination, keeping the quartet ever in motion, whether executing clever poses, launching into dance steps, like a particularly inspired mini-tribute to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, or simply following Bowen and Bell’s script, but with flair and pizzazz.

That the production’s four stars couldn’t be more different “types” is just one reason that this [title of show] cast makes such a strong impression from the get-go.

Lanky blond Sattler is absolutely terrific as Hunter, a young man with dreams of Broadway and a Tony, whose tastes run toward trashy reality TV and ‘80s Broadway blockbusters. Dark-haired Lopez is equally splendid as Jeff, who prefers forgotten musicals to megahits, worries considerably more than his show-writing partner, and has a more realistic outlook on life. The bubbly Humphreys makes for a sensational Heidi (in real life a Broadway show vet), and sings the heck out of the show’s big power ballad “A Way Back To Then.” Blonde stunner Staley completes the quartet, and wonderfully so, as the quirky Susan, whose self-deprecating jokes and occasionally inappropriate remarks can’t mask a talent equal to her costars’.

[tltle of show] gives each of the fabulous foursome his or her moments to shine, including Sattler’s jive-talking F-word-sprinkled performance as Blank Paper in “An Original Musical.” Humphreys and Staley get their center-stage moments in “I Am Playing Me” and “Secondary Characters” (the titles are self-explanatory). And Lopez is great throughout as the character with the most confidence-ravaging “Vampires” to kill.

Lastly, CSUF faculty member Hanlon not only provides impeccable piano accompaniment as “Larry,” but even gets his own few dry words to say once Hunter and Jeff have gotten things worked out “with the union.”

McLeod Benson’s lighting design aids immensely in giving each scene its own distinctive look, with sound designer Kyle Swafford on hand to insert just the right effects. Haylie Lovett is stage manager, Rod Bagheri assistant musical director, and David Alan Royster assistant stage manager. Completing the behind-the-scenes team are Chandler Burke on light board and crew members Sara Lipowsky and Chloe Lovato.

Humphreys and Lopez will graduate in June, the former already set to star as Lucille Frank in 3-D Theatricals’ upcoming Parade (talk about fast track to stardom) while the latter heads up to Santa Maria and Solvang for an exciting summer season of shows with PCPA Theaterfest. Meanwhile, juniors Sattler and Staley will be back for next fall and spring’s CSUF musical theater season, and there’s no better news than than.

L.A. and Orange County musical theater lovers are urged to catch the gifted quartet in [title of show] during its brief Santa Ana run, a talent showcase if ever there was one for a foursome with Broadway dreams as big as those that propelled the characters they are playing to New York’s Great White Way.

CSUF Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana.

–Steven Stanley
April 19, 2013

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