American musical theater is ripe for parody. There is something inherently ridiculous about characters bursting into song for no particular reason, and the trend of making musicals out of unlikely popular movies threatens to make the genre almost synonymous with overblown misfires.
In short, it's an excellent time for Center REPertory Company of Walnut Creek to offer the Bay Area premiere of Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart's comedy The Musical of Musicals: The Musical! (No relation to Berkeley Rep's recent TRAGEDY: a tragedy.) The same rudimental story is told in the style of five different musical-theater songwriting teams. Most songs parody specific numbers but often veer into bits borrowed from other musicals by the same songwriters, and often egregious puns reference the rest of their oeuvre.
First captured in a very funny silent-film intro by Jeffrey Draper, the common thread is the classic melodrama scenario of the damsel in distress and the predatory landlord: "You must pay the rent!" "I can't pay the rent!" "You must pay the rent!"
Directed and choreographed by Mindy Cooper, the same four actors play alternate versions of the same roles throughout: Dani Marcus as cash-strapped ingénue June, Mark Farrell as leering landlord Jitter, Quinn Van Antwerp as strapping hero Willy, and Milissa Carey as maternal advisor Abby. Musical director Brandon Adams accompanies the action as the omnipresent pianist and sometime narrator.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein homage "Corn" is mostly a delightfully corny parody of Oklahoma! with hints of Carousel. "Oh, the chipmunk is reading the Bible," cowboy Big Willy sings with hilarious earnestness, and June's plummy diction contrasts amusingly with the countrified pronunciation. Farrell's grubby landlord is a small, small man bristling with resentment. "Now ah'm gonna go back to mah lonely room," he says petulantly — "to look at pitchers! Pitchers of dirty girls!"
The Stephen Sondheim section, "A Little Complex" mixes a whole lot of Sweeney Todd with a dash of Company, casting Jitter as a murderous, frustrated artist (to squeeze in some Sunday in the Park with George jokes) who runs a modern apartment complex full of neurotics. June's plight is just a footnote in the Jerry Herman chapter "Dear Abby," very much in the mode of Mame, as nerdy Junie Faye and the fellas sing about filling time until their fabulous hostess reemerges in a fabulous new outfit to deliver a pithy quip. The Kander-and-Ebb-style "Speakeasy" takes two parts Cabaret to one part Chicago, with Jutter the flamboyant emcee, Juny the struggling showgirl, Villy her jailbird fiancé, and Fraulein Abby as a vampy Marlene Dietrich type.
Best of all is "Aspects of Junita," hilariously parodying Andrew Lloyd Webber's over-the-top bombast, special effects, sung-through pop opera ("We Never Talk Anymore") and alleged plagiarism (Junita's oft-repeated refrain "I've Heard That Song Before"). June as an egomaniacal Evita type is paired with Jitter as the Phantom of the Opera, with bits of Cats and Jesus Christ Superstar thrown in.
Meanwhile in San Francisco, the Un-Scripted Theater Company is improvising full-length stage musicals in the style of the non-musical playwright of your choice. The group has done fully improvised musicals before — notably The Great Puppet Musical and the holiday show Let It Snow — but this is the first go-round for Theater: The Musical. Over the month of May a rotating cast of actors has been coming up with two-act tuners in the mode of David Mamet, Samuel Beckett, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Woody Allen and Neil Simon. (Simon wrote Sweet Charity, but rules are made to be broken.)
The night we saw the show it happened to be an all-female cast and the playwright chosen from audience suggestions was Lillian Hellman. (No one uses her book for Candide anymore, so it's easy to pretend she never wrote musicals.) Usually five out of the pool of ten actors perform, but this time six women quickly whipped up the characters and story arc on the spot and belted out improvised lyrics to the spontaneous keyboard compositions of David Norfleet.
More melodrama than comedy, the plot that emerged was somewhat inspired by The Children's Hour in exploring fear, loathing, and sapphic suspicions at a girls' boarding school. Susan Snyder became the new teacher, Mandy Khoshnevisan the snobby establishmentarian, Karen Hirst the spiteful gossip, Tara McDonough the awkward nerd, Debra Shifrin the budding idealist, and Laurie Glapa the absent-minded dean.
Some songs were meandering, others remarkably catchy, but on the whole what emerged was often quite funny and more solidly constructed than some scripted musicals that have passed through the neighborhood. (Lestat comes to mind.) When there were long pauses, especially when things were still taking shape, the actors used the awkwardness as a character choice.
Because each performance is an entirely different show than the last, you could see three completely new musicals in the one weekend remaining, each never to be seen again. Theater: The Musical isn't just subverting musical theater by making it look easy — in a particularly immediate form, it's what live theater is all about.
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