OnStage Contributing Critic from The Column
FARMERS BRANCH, TX - [Title of Show] is a show about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical. This simple but clever premise provides much comedic fodder. Not only is the show about creating a show but serves as commentary about the process of mounting a musical, the ups and downs of creativity, the dependence on others to make a show successful, and the trials and tribulations surrounding the production of a show. It’s a show with many fun one liners, comedic songs, and it pokes fun at audiences, producers, casting, composing music, writing lyrics and creating the book of a musical. It is all done with much good natured humor. The show isn’t heavy on plot, deep meaning, or high drama. At least this is the version that The Firehouse Theatre is presenting under the capable direction of Lon Barrera. From my understanding there is another version that is laced with profanities, and more edgy humor. This is the family friendly version.
With a musical like [Title of Show] the creative team must decide how to present the material. Like many Neil Simon’s plays the option is to play it straight which makes the comedy sharper and the play more poignant, or to play it broadly to garner more laughs and amusement while downplaying the dramatic impact. This production presents the latter way. While my personal preference would have been the former, nonetheless [Title of Show] is thoroughly entertaining and worth attending.
Lon Barrera does marvelous staging. He creates many sight gags that constantly surprise the audience and induce laughter. To name them would spoil the fun because part of the joy is in seeing what he will happen next. He keeps the pace of the action brisk, and his staging is infectiously energetic. The five performers he chose are exceptionally talented and fulfill his strong vision.
Musically the show is superb. While the songs may not have memorable melodies that audiences will find themselves humming afterwards, each song is performed flawlessly. This isn’t just due to the talent of the singers, but it is due to the strong musical direction of Andrew Friedrich. Harmonies are realized effortlessly. Tonality, emphasis, and tempos are spot on. Considering that the score requires only a piano and four voices, the music fills the theatre. Andrew Friedrich plays the piano throughout the show, along with playing the small role of Larry, and his piano skills, comedic timing and musicality is impressive.
The four main cast members that carry the show are sensational. It is doubtful a better cast could have been assembled. Because this musical references itself in the dialogue and breaks the fourth wall, it requires a strong set of actors to make it clear to the audience when the action is self-referential, when a book scene is happening, and when audience asides are occurring, it could be very confusing for an audience to follow. This cast untangles it all and there is never any confusion as to when, where, and what is happening.
Jeff and Hunter, played by Cody Dry and Joshua Sherman respectively are two peas in a pod. They are best friends. Hunter is the catalyst of the duo as he is the person who first brings up the idea of creating musical for a festival within three weeks. Hunter is also the one that is also the one who pushes for changes in the show when the opportunity arises to mount the show on Broadway. Jeff doesn’t agree with the changes Hunter makes and this disagreement threatens to rip apart their friendship. Because Dry and Sherman present their characters so one dimensionally by the time the rift occurs, it fails to pull at the heartstrings of the audience. But this isn’t detrimental to the production because the audience knows based on the way that the characters have been presented that it will all work out and a happy end is coming, and as an audience member we are eager to see how they will work out their differences. Dry and Sherman have great chemistry on stage and play off each other exceptionally well. It’s as if both actors have been playing these roles for a long time; they are so comfortable with each other on stage. Vocally their voices blend beautifully and at no point in the show does one upstage the other. For the show to work they need to be seen as a unit, and they succeed.
Heidi, as played by Noelle Mason, is the most dimensional character in the production. Whereas everyone else seems more like a caricature, she is the most real. Vocally, she has a stunning voice and she is able to add nuances to her songs illuminating the subtext behind the lyrics. As a performer she seizes the stage when required by her part, and then generously relinquishes it to become part of the ensemble. Her initially strained relationship with the character Susan eventually evolves into a genuine friendship. The arc of her character is believable and is a testament of her acting prowess.
The funniest character in the show is that of Susan played by Elisa Danielle James. Her droll deliveries peppered with her unexpected quips are flawlessly executed. Like Ms. Mason she understands the need to shine when required and then work her way back into the fold of the ensemble. For the character to succeed the audience must love not liking her, which is a complex task to pull off properly, and Ms. James nails it.
With such brilliant performances on stage it was slightly disappointing to see some of the technical elements of the show not reach the level of the performers.
The choreography by Shannon Walsh was a mixed bag. Nearly every number was accompanied by choreography. At times I wanted the singers to simply stay put. The lyrics and melodies were clever enough; there was no need to add so much dancing. This isn’t to say that some of the dance steps weren’t effective. She borrows from the Broadway cannon of famous dance steps/sequences and introduces them into the musical numbers to add to the comedy. To see the performers execute them, at times with some struggle and trepidation which added to the laughs, was a joy. But these choreographic comedic ploys get overused, and the impact is lessened.
There is no credit given to whoever came up with the costuming. The characters are to remain dressed the same throughout the show, so it shouldn’t have been a difficult task. While the character Larry was appropriately dressed all in black as a musician, and Jeff and Hunter were dressed in t-shirts and jeans which was serviceable to the characters, the roles of Susan and Heide needed definition. The musical is set in New York and the dialogue references the women as one being downtown and the other being midtown. Neither woman was dressed accordingly. They looked suburban. It wasn’t as detrimental for the character of Heidi, but for the role of Susan to be dressed in a soft pink and white top with blue jeans did not capture the harder edge that the downtown Manhattan neighborhoods like Tribeca, Chelsea, and the East Village, have. Since the characters are basically stereotypes, their manner of dress would have added to the zaniness of the show.
The set designed by Kevin Brown was confusing. Because the dialogue in the play also mentions that the set is supposed to be made up of only 4 chairs and a piano, to see a stage be saddled with an elevated platform in a room with a long wall full of show posters, it caused confusion as to where the play was taking place. Based on the dialogue the audience knows that sometimes it’s at Hunter’s apartment and at other times at Jeff’s apartment, and the well done lighting design created by Kyle Harris helped establish these areas by delineating with light sections of the stage. But the room encompassing the stage didn’t indicate if the other scenes were in a rehearsal room, a stage, in an apartment, etc. And why a platform? It’s never used. Aesthetically the construction of the back wall wasn’t well done because the seams of each wall panel could be seen. The set felt like a confusing add-on. A blank stage would have sufficed.
Another strange add-on to the set was the use of projections at one point in the show created by Tyler Jeffrey Adams. I’m not sure what the point of it was for it added nothing of substance to the show and proved to be distracting.
The sound design by Mark Howard had sound mixing issues with the mikes during the songs. It was a slightly muddled. Fortunately, the diction and clarity of the performers was so strong that they were still intelligible but their vocals lacked crispness. Because the piano was set on the platform, the hollow of the platform augmented the volume of the instrument and frequently nearly drowned out the singers. Fortunately, these outstanding singers remedied the problem when it occurred and they belted out their songs to compensate for the volume disparity and to insure that the lyrics would be heard.
I must commend the properties designer Connie Hay. Though the show doesn’t require that many props, there is one sight gag regarding programs of Broadway Shows. It is inconceivable that she found all the original playbills, which means Hay had to recreate them. Well done!
[Title of Show] is a feel-good musical. The strength of this show is in the clever story within a story within a story and it requires an ensemble of talented actors and singers, and a very good piano player to pull it off. It doesn’t depend on the technical elements for the show to succeed. The Firehouse Theatre accomplished this task by finding 5 outstanding performers, a very capable director and insanely talented musical director/piano player. Go see it.
[TITLE OF SHOW]
The Firehouse Theatre, 2535 Valley View Lane, Farmers Branch, Texas 75234
Now through May 1st, 2016
Performances on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30PM, and Sundays at 2:30PM. For information and tickets visit www.thefirehousetheatre.com or call 972-620-3747.