A hit Broadway show performed in the intimacy of a living-room for a lucky thirty invited guests is what the talented students of USC’s Musical Theatre Repertory are offering audiences in their 11th-season opener, [title of show], and it’s hard to imagine a better show to put on for friends and family than the 2004 Broadway gem, one which could easily have started its life in the living rooms of its writer-performers Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book) and works every bit as well in USC Hillel’s “living room” as in a more traditionally theatrical setting.
Trojan duo Patrick Wallace and Chase Rosenberg step into the shoes of writer-protagonists 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 (Brooke Lewis and Sami Nye at USC), 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 played 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 become a regional and student theater favorite.
Many of [title of show]’s best, biggest, and most “meta” 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, there’s the song “Monkeys And Playbills,” which has Susan and Heidi showing 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.
Among [title of show]’s other musical highlights is Wallace’s jive-talking F-word-sprinkled performance as Blank Paper in “An Original Musical,” one which prompts Rosenberg to ask “Is this character black?” to which “Hunter” responds “Motherfucker, I can be anything you want me to be.”
Lewis and Nye 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.
Since all the production design [title of show] requires are four movable chairs, a keyboard for the show’s accompanist to tickle the ivories, and a handful of props, nothing seems “missing” at Hillel as experienced in armchair-sofa comfort by an audience seated on all four sides of the center’s spacious foyer.
2015-16 MTR President Kevin Paley graduates from a quartet of memorable acting turns in shows as diverse as Floyd Collins and Little Shop Of Horrors to a professional-caliber directorial debut with [title of show].
Endlessly imaginative in his use of the Hillel space and just four chairs on rollers (the rollers are a smart choice) seasoned with bits of inspired choreography throughout, Paley aces his first time in the director’s chair.
And what a terrific cast he has assembled.
Recent Scenie winner Wallace is as appealing a Hunter as Hunters get, a young man with dreams of Broadway and a Tony, whose tastes run toward trashy reality TV and ‘80s Broadway blockbusters.
Nerdy-cute Rosenberg is equally winning as bespectacled theater geek Jeff, a man who prefers forgotten musicals to megahits, worries considerably more than his show-writing partner, and has a more realistic outlook on life.
Nye is a stunner as real-life Broadway star Blickenstaff, and belts the show’s big power ballad “A Way Back To Then” quite heavenly indeed.
Lewis could not make for a more captivating Susan, whose self-deprecating jokes and occasionally inappropriate remarks can’t mask a talent equal to her costars’.
Musical director Sasha Bartol not only provides expert keyboard accompaniment as “Mary,” Bell’s book allows her a few dry words to say once Hunter and Jeff have gotten things worked out “with the union.”
The production’s “living-room lighting” is pretty much on-and-off and off-and-on, but that’s all that [title of show] needs. Megan Smith’s costumes are just right for each character. Prop designer Christina Lelon deserves special credit for the show’s mock Playbills, each with its own authentic cover art.
Jessica Major and Rebecca Mellinger are co-producers. Molly Chiffer is assistant director. Stage management duties have been shared by Summer Grubach (rehearsal) and Carey Reynolds (performance). Erin Triplett is Heidi alternate.
A longer-than-usual [title of show] run means that Lewis, Nye, Rosenberg, and Wallace will get extra chances to dig even deeper into their already rich performances.
It also means that audiences have till October 18 to catch [tos], but with seating very limited, do not wait till the last minute to make plans to see the latest from MTR, now in its eleventh year of giving audiences entirely student-produced, directed, performed, and designed theater that more than holds its own against the pros.
Hillel at ‘SC, 3300 S Hoover St, Los Angeles.
October 6, 2015
Artist: Zachary Blumner