Friday, April 6, 2018

Applause! Applause! Review of [title of show] at The Secret Theatre by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of [title of show] at The Secret Theatre was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 8 (2018) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

[title of show]
Book by Hunter Bell
Music & Lyrics by Jeff Bowen
Executive Producer: Richard Mazda
Director: Scott Guthrie
Stage Manager/Tech: Jessica Fornear
Lighting Design: Sophie Talmadge Silleck
Set Design: TzuChing Cheng
Production Manager: Justin Hsu
The Secret Theatre
44-02 23rd Street
Long Island City, New York 11101
Reviewed 3/29/18  

[title of show] is a one-act musical that chronicles the three-week creative process that went into the show's submission as a possible entry in the New York Musical Theatre Festival, and then continues to follow the trials and tribulations of the four actors as the show is produced off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre (2006) followed by their efforts to create buzz to get the show produced on Broadway (where it played at the Lyceum Theatre in 2008 for 13 previews and 102 regular performances). Determined to write an original musical  rather than adapt an existing play or movie, Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book) soon realized that their conversations about what to write were more interesting that what they were actually writing. As a result, the musical documents the creation of the show itself ("a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical"). Bell and Bowen expanded the script and included their experiences with friends Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff, as well as Larry Pressgrove, their musical director. As a result, what you are watching is the actual dialogue spoken by the actors, which leads to one actor making the observation, "We have to get out of this scene because it feels a little long." After the script being submitted to the New York Musical Theatre Festival is in the envelope ready to be mailed, another actor observes, "If the finished script is in the envelope, should we still be talking." It's all very clever and entertaining.

This production of [title of show] at The Secret Theatre features a perfect cast of extremely talented actors with superior vocal abilities. Each and every one was a pleasure to watch perform. Jason Moody was amazingly quirky and authentic as Jeff, and Jeffrey Scott Stevens excelled as Hunter, the neurotic, ambitious playwright doggedly committed to seeing his play produced off and on Broadway. The audience witnesses his challenges as he considers bringing in an actress with more name recognition, changing the script to make it more family-friendly, and dealing with conflicts in the schedules of his original cast members. Chelsea Barker, who plays Heidi, is an absolute delight, and Jennifer Swiderski, as Susan, couldn't be better. They both mastered the unique personalities reflected in their respective characters, and together with the remainder of the cast, created magic on the stage that continuously impressed those lucky enough to be in the audience. Christopher Lengerich has a few lines as Larry, the Musical Director, but still makes an important contribution to the success of this production. Early on, Larry didn't speak but Jeff assured him, "We worked it out with the union - you can talk."

The dialogue is fresh and realistic. The relationships depicted and their conversations and conflicts are what you might observe if you were given the opportunity to see how friends interacted when they were not performing for public consumption. Discussions included whether audiences would like to see Paris Hilton play Mame and whether Wonder Woman should run for President. Two of the friends text each other possible Drag Queen names (e.g. Mini Van Rental, Lady Foot Locker). Hunter is interested in a guy wearing a red shirt who Jeff says is straight. Hunter's response, "so is spaghetti until it gets hot and wet." There are the usual challenges about working a steady job to pay the rent, and the disappointment when the success of the show doesn't change their lives in the way some had hoped it would. We see their struggles to promote the show using a video blog and performing a few numbers at the Pride Festival and the Actors Fund Black Tie Gala. At one point, in desperation, Hunter says, "Take your shirts off so we can sell some fucking tickets!" The show features no stars, four chairs, and no costume changes, yet it still was, and is, a smashing success. Larry, the Musical Director, accompanies the actors as they sing some extraordinary, memorable musical numbers, including "Untitled Opening Number," "Two Nobodies In New York," "An Original Musical," "Monkeys and Paybills," "Part Of It All," "I'm Playing Me," "What Kind Of Girl Is She," "Die, Vampire, Die!," "Secondary Characters," "A Way Back To Then," and "Nine People's Favorite Thing." There are also occasional homages paid to other musicals such as Rent and Into The Woods.

The only minor negatives are that some of the references, such as to the actress Mary Stout being injured by a runaway hot dog cart careening down West 46th Street, are quite dated and will be missed by most audience members. An explanation of the references provided in the program would have been helpful. In addition, the continuity of scenes in the second half of the musical reflected by the "fast-forward" Montages Parts 1-3 were out of sync with the slower real life timing of the rest of the show. However, these minor criticisms have more to do with the play itself than this production, which is the very best it could have been. We learn about vampires (such as The Vampire of Despair) that can come between you and your creative self. We also learn there may be a glow in the dark poster of Aspects Of Love existent somewhere in the world. On the other hand, we never learn whether Jeff ever got a Photo Shoot in a "Homo Magazine." They say "a Drag Queen (who needs her protein just like everyone else) is fabulous at night - but in the daytime - not so much." I can assure you this production of [title of show] is fabulous no matter what time of day you see it.

I give this show my highest recommendation and urge you to catch it during its current run at The Secret Theatre, where it plays through April 14, 2018. Tickets are $18.00 if purchased in advance and $20.00 at the door. For reservations and more information, you can call 718-392-0722 or visit www.secrettheatre.com 

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