Caitlin Lester-Sams, Mary Teutsch, Stephen Guarino and Eric Potter in "[title of show]." Photo: Farmers Alley Theatre

Quirky Musical Pleases Eye, Ear

By John Quinn

Here's to the exciting life of the drama critic. This one drove five hours, round trip, to see a 90-minute musical. Driving into the sunset along I-94 to Kalamazoo (in my usual, white-knuckled fashion), I muttered through gritted teeth, "This better be good!" Well, the closing production of Farmers Alley Theatre's sixth season was worth the trip.

The musical in question is titled Robert Weiner, show director and one of the founders of Farmers Alley Theatre, tentatively describes it as a "musical documentary," an appealing explanation for this unique work.

In 2004, aspiring playwright Hunter Bell teamed up with his friend, aspiring composer Jeff Bowen, to create an entirely new musical as a potential entry in the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Although they hashed out a few ideas, they discovered that nothing they were working on was as interesting as their conversations ABOUT what they were working on. Thus was born "a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical." The existentialism boggles the mind. They were aided by two friends: Susan, a cog in a soulless corporate machine, and Heidi, the girl who flew the nest for the insecure life of a professional actor.

So "[title of show]" is a musical about the ups and downs of creative process. (The screwy title is merely the first line of the New York Musical Theatre Festival's entry form.) The most interesting part of the plot is the increasing tension between the partners as each realizes that the other doesn't necessarily share his vision for the future. "[title of show]" made it to the festival; it surfaced at special events for the next two years. It ran off-Broadway in 2006; Bowen and Bell, as well as director Michael Berresse, won Obie Awards. But Bell wouldn't rest until "[title of show]" made it to Broadway, while Bowen was willing to let it rest. There is an intrinsic honesty in this script that sets it a cut above the rest.

That being said, "[title of show]" remains, as its creators internally describe it, "self-indulgent" and "self-referential." A director and his cast have a greater challenge than usual winning over an audience, and Weiner and company don't disappoint. Stephen Guarino (Hunter) and Eric Potter (Jeff), something of the odd couple of musical theater, discharge Bell's rapid repartee like a machine gun. The ladies hold their own in the cross fire; Mary Teutsch plays in-a-rut Susan, the office manager, and Caitlin Lester-Sams plays Heidi, the starry-eyed actress.

You won't be humming the tunes while leaving the theater, but you'll remember the performances long after the songs themselves are forgotten. The singing is excellent all around, as music director Catherine A. Walker has brought out the best in her artists. Teutsch's rendition of "Die, Vampire, Die," which celebrates the triumph of willpower over the bloodsuckers that sap one's originality, is particularly moving. Lester-Sams sings the lovely "The Way Back to Then," an emotional reflection of Heidi's personal journey. The soprano's broad, powerful range made the number outstanding.

The ensemble is backed up by associate music director Nich Mueller, who is something of a virtuoso on keyboard. The show has a running gag; Nich plays Larry, another of the partners' friends, but who can only get in on the action when Hunter remembers to write him some lines. It's just one more twist in an already screwball show.

All in all, "[title of show]" is entertaining fare, a light snack on a warm summer night.

REVIEW:

'[title of show]'

Farmers Alley Theatre

221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo

8 p.m. Thursday, July 24, July 31

8 p.m. Friday, July 25, Aug. 1

8 p.m. Saturday, July 19, 26, Aug. 2

2 p.m. Sunday, July 20, 27, Aug. 3

1 hour, 40 minutes; no intermission

$31-33.

269-343-2727

http://www.farmersalleytheatre.com

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