There’s something about [title of show] that feels very Fringe.
Not Fringe in that this little musical, at the Parliament House’s Footlight Theatre, could likely turn up in Orlando’s annual spring madness – although, if it were a good bit shorter, that could very well be the case.
But Fringe in that [title of show], which is self-aware to the point of narcissism, feels like innumerable shows we’ve all seen at the Fringe, the kind in which some blocked young writer says to himself or herself, “Gee, I can’t think of anything to write about, so why don’t I write about that?”
Fortunately, [title of show] mostly gets away with it. And the Wanzie Presents production, co-directed by Kenny Howard and Michael Wanzie, mostly sails along blithely on the strengths of a charming cast and a script that aims for and pretty much conquers the nth degree of absurdity.
Composer Jeff Bowen, who graduated in 1993 from Stetson, and lyricist/book-writer Hunter Bell were, as they put it, “nobodies in New York” when they set about to enter a script in the 2004 New York Musical Theater Festival. Both had been theater nerds; both collected Playbills. They had only three weeks to write their show. The result was a musical about writing a musical, with Bowen and Bell playing themselves, two actress friends playing, well, two actress friends and a lone keyboard player sharing the stage with four mismatched chairs.
But the show took off, so [title of show] now ends not with the pair sending off their script to the festival but with its path to off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre and, for a brief run in 2008, to Broadway.
That’s pretty much what you get at the Footlight Theatre, where Kevin Kelly and Rob Lott now play the struggling lyricist and composer, Robyn Kelly and Melissa Mason play their friends Susan and Heidi, John B. deHaas is on the keyboard and the chairs are backed by a fake wall that looks as if water has been running down it for years. There’s no other pretense, really: The opening number is called “Untitled Opening Number,” and a scene ends when one of the guys says, “Right now I feel like we have to get out of this scene because it feels a little long.”
He’s right, of course, but it doesn’t much matter when the show is filled with self-deprecating wit. Lott’s Jeff – or Jeffy, as everybody calls him – nags Kevin Kelly’s Hunter for his poor grammar; the two argue about whether “theater” rhymes with “sweeter,” and Hunter gives Jeff a hard time for voicing opinions about shows he hasn’t seen. (“I have opinions about stuff I never see all the time,” Jeff replies.)
The two characters are ridiculously obsessed with New York theater: Even if you know who John Cameron Mitchell is and remember Henry, Sweet Henry (guilty as charged), you may still wonder about the dropped names of a couple of more obscure New York thespians. And Lott and Kelly bring plenty of pizzazz to their roles – found, in Lott’s case, in his essential sweetness and, in Kelly’s, in his terrific voice.
Mason and Robyn Kelly have less to do, although they present a good approximation of two actresses who aren’t much interested in each other, and Kelly’s wry facial expressions are priceless. The spunky Mason isn’t always able to make her lovely voice heard, and you’re left wanting to know a bit more about who these women are.
Actually, that feeling is a little surprising because [title of show] outstays its welcome toward the end: The show feels at least half an hour too long (and, in fact, the Broadway version clocked in at 30 minutes shorter than this one).
Part of your restlessness toward the end may be the pace, but most of it is in the nature of the show itself, which all too often meanders from one scene to the next. It’s funny to watch a couple of guys filling out their festival applications in what seems like real time; it’s less funny to hear them sing about development and photo shoots and the minutiae of getting a show onstage.
In that way, [title of show] is a victim of its own imaginative premise – sometimes hilarious and sometimes, like life itself, just routine. In theater, just like everywhere else, sometimes you have to take the bad with the good.
‘[title of show]’
What: Wanzie Presents production of Jeff Bowen-Hunter Bell musical.
Where: Footlight Theatre, Parliament House Resort, 410 N. Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, through Oct. 23 (also, 8 p.m. Oct. 25).
Cost: $14 most performances, $12 Oct. 25.
Photo, clockwise from lower left: John B. deHaas, Rob Lott, Kevin Kelly, Melissa Mason, Robyn Kelly. Photo courtesy of Wanzie Presents.