- OnStage Connecticut Critic
HAMDEN, CT - When I started reviewing shows at Quinnipiac University [QU], I made the decision to not write about student-directed work. While Main Stage shows felt fair game for criticism, it just didn’t seem kosher to pick apart the work of students. But here I am writing about the latest production from Fourth Wall Theater, QU’s extracurricular club for student directed and produced work. Why? Because when you have that much fun in an old, cramped black box theater, you really have to share it.
[title of show], which for ease I’ll refer to as [tos] going forward, is a slight but hilarious meta-musical that debuted on Broadway in 2008. It was written by composer Jeff Bowen and playwright Hunter Bell, with help from their actress friends Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell, for the New York Musical Theatre Festival. It is about a composer named Jeff and a playwright named Hunter who, with help from their actress friends Heidi and Susan, write a musical for the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Yes, the show is based on true events but book writer Bell includes a constant stream of self-referential commentary. These are characters who clearly know they are in a musical, with jokes about scene changes music, bad rhyming and constant acknowledgment of the onstage pianist. But it is to Bell’s credit that, despite the constant fourth-wall breaking, [tos] never feels gimmicky or lazy in its winking humor. In fact, the punchy script is filled with so many solid jokes and detailed musical theater reference that it’s nearly impossible to catch them all in one viewing. If Tina Fey and Seth Rudetsky co-wrote a musical, I’d imagine it would feel mighty similar to [tos].
Bowen’s music, which has the spunky feel of the humorous songs Jason Robert Brown or Bobby Lopez probably wrote right out of college, is somewhat less successful than the book. While the score is tuneful and the lyrics are witty (even occasionally insightful), I can’t say many melodies stuck with me a few hours later. There were some highlights, though, like “Monkeys and Playbills,” an incredibly clever and well-researched number that weaves dozens of famous Broadway flops into the lyrics (including “Merrily We Roll Along,” a sort of spiritual sibling to [tos]). While the script is often uproariously funny, [tos] is appropriately balanced by a few moments of much-needed emotional clarity and, dare I say, depth. While “Die Vampire, Die!” may sound silly, Bown’s lyrics thoughtfully dig into the agonizing self-doubt that always comes with creating art. Another standout musical moment is the show’s poignant 11-o’clock number “A Way Back To Then.” Reminiscent of “Why” from “Tick, Tick Boom!” (another show about the struggles of making a musical), “A Way Back To Then” relatably explores the formative role theater has for so many of us.
That is all fine and dandy, but the success or failure of [tos] largely rests on the cast and creative team. With only four chairs and a keyboard, there is nowhere to hide. Luckily director Ryan Sheehan (who brings a clear eye for staging and pacing) gathered a supremely talented and wickedly funny ensemble who were more than up to the task. Sean Davis and Louis Napolitano brought deft comedic timing and an easy comfortability to Jeff and Hunter, respectively. These are parts easy to overplay – either going into swishy gay stereotypes or hamming up the more far-fetched moments – but Davis and Napolitano played their characters straight (perhaps that is a poor choice of phrase), knowing very well that laughs will come if the scenes are played for truth. Gabby Cocca made a strong QU debut as the hilarious Susan, who has all the brashness, awkwardness and buried-vulnerability of a Melissa McCarthy character. While Cocca’s Susan provided many of the laughs, Carleigh Peterson’s Heidi brought much of the heart. I’ve seen Peterson twice before at QU, as a schoolgirl in “Spring Awakening” and as a tough-talking detective in a gender-bending production of “The Pillowman” and, while she did very good work in both those productions, it is clear musical comedy is where she truly shines. With a crystal clear tone and rapid vibrato, Peterson radiates an old-school charm and easy stage presence (think Christina Bianco minus the impressions). She’s the kind of performer I can easily see gracing the Goodspeed stage in a few years. Somewhere between a fifth cast member and the sole member of the show’s band, Rob Bernardara accompanied (and occasionally interacted with) the quartet as pianist Larry.
The final song in [tos] features the following lyric: “I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing.” And it is true that [tos] might not be everyone’s thing. The show is incredibly inside baseball (Alice Ripley and John Cameron Mitchell are among least obscure names mentioned) and the second act is not as well formed as the first. Certain references, too, feel like they are on the edge of being outdated. A 2016 edition should probably replace Paris Hilton with Kim Kardashian, “Mamma Mia” with “Jersey Boy” and include an obligatory “Hamilton” reference. But as a proud theater geek, I am most decidedly in that first group of nine. With a hilarious, original book and a talented young cast, [tos] is the most fun I’ve had at a theater in a long time. To quote that “Tick, Tick Boom!” song I was referencing earlier, “hey, what a way to spend a day.”