A delightful musical about putting on a musical

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By Doug Deuchler

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I'll admit the title of this show works my nerves. It's an editor's nightmare because it seems like the actual title has somehow been omitted or misplaced. [Title of Show], however, is a delightful evening. It's the perfect stripped-down, bare-bones musical for the cozy Open Door Theater performance space. The only significant technical demands are four mismatched chairs and a keyboard.

If you're a fan of those big old warhorse musicals with large casts, sumptuous sets, and stunning costumes, this may not be the show for you. But, impressively directed by Ashton Byrum and featuring solid performances by very talented actors, [Title of Show] is really well done and enjoyable. It played in New York for several years.

The set-up is simple. A pair of struggling, ambitious young gay New York writers are developing a new musical with a couple of actress friends for an upcoming theater festival. Their deadline is in three short weeks.

This lively show is autobiographical. Composer and lyricist Jeff Bowen and librettist Hunter Bell actually played themselves in its long New York run. 

The musical feels personal and so vivid I felt like I was watching a reality show with added singing and dancing. There are lots of priceless one-liners and the characters are likable and interesting, though there is that Seinfeld thing going on. The show is not about nothing, as Jerry Seinfeld often described his popular TV sitcom. Like that show, the four friends are aimlessly self-absorbed, yet during the 90 or so minutes, they write and perform their show-within-the-show while learning lessons about themselves and about one another in the process. There is no intermission.

Hunter, played by Jake Morrissy, and Alex Ghattas, playing Jeff, have great chemistry. The two young men are partners who work together, but there's no bro-mance; they are not sexual partners. In fact, unlike most musicals, there is no boy-meets-girl or boy-meets-boy subplot. 

Both actors provide punch to the comedy. But Morrissy's character is more uninhibited, spouting plentiful profanities in times of stress or annoyment. Perhaps I should say that this show is recommended for mature audiences only. But most of the off-color language is probably nothing kids haven't heard on the playground or in the corridors at school.

From 42nd Street to A Chorus Line there have been lots of musicals about putting a show together. This one feels very up-to-date with backstage gossip and inside jokes about flopped shows.

"What if the first scene is just us talking about what to write?" Hunter asks Jeff. They don't want to adapt an existing story, play, or movie. So they begin to simply document their creative process. Immediately we are watching their show evolve as dialogue turns into numbers and even cellphone calls become transitional comedy linking segments of the plot. 

Dramatic works about writing and writers rarely focus on the creative process but instead illustrate the roadblocks of alcoholism or drug addiction, the "price" of fame on relationships, and other tragic conflicts. In this show, however, the insanity and challenges of actual writing — like writer's block, self-doubt, and writing team disagreements — are depicted in numbers like "Change It, Don't Change It."

"I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing," one song declares, "than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing."

Ellen Fred and Dakota Hughes are strong as Susan and Heidi. Susan is an insecure corporate minion and a wannabe actress. Heidi, too, struggles to get a foothold on Broadway. Each actress excels in her big solo moments.

Charlotte Rivard-Hoster is not only this production's musical director but, seated at her keyboard upstage right throughout the whole show, she is also a cast member — the mostly ignored accompanist who chimes in every so often to remind the others how vital she is. It's a fun running gag.

The musical is tightly choreographed by director Byrum. The technical director is Stevan Saliny. Josh Prisching designed the lighting. Jacquieline Penrod's scenic design includes a beautiful irridescent blue Manhattan skyline. Alison Ennis is the stage manager.

[Title of Show] may seem inconsequential, perhaps, and it's certainly never going to give Wicked or The Lion King a run for their money. But this funny, lively little musical about making magic under pressure, now playing at Open Door Theater, is energetic and a welcome midwinter diversion. 

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