Friday, July 23, 2010
When I heard about the premise of "[title of show]," the insider-y, Broadway hit now having its west coast debut at Diversionary Theatre, I expected an arch, over-the-top production. I happily discovered real heart at this musical's center. The story is about the challenges of creating – a play or a film, or any project, really – with people you care about.
On a spare set (four chairs and a keyboard, with show posters tacked to the walls) the four characters chronicle the creation, roadblocks, and ultimate success of the musical you are actually watching. That is to say, "[title of show]" is a musical about four people creating a musical about four people creating a musical. Got it?
Jeff (played by Tom Zohar) walks the line between collaboration and competition with best friend Hunter (Tony Houck), when they decide to write a musical for an upcoming contest. They realize the easiest thing to write about is what they are doing: writing a musical for an upcoming contest.
The tone for this premise is immediately set when Jeff, ending a phone call with Hunter where they agree to meet at Hunter's apartment, rolls his chair across the stage to where Hunter is sitting. "Why did you just roll your chair over?" Hunter asks.
This sort of thing could get annoying, but "[title of show]" doesn't let itself get overly taken with its own cleverness.
I had the chance to break through the fourth wall (if there even is one in this show) and sit down with the cast. In New York, the cast played themselves. The west coast players had to navigate stepping into someone’s real shoes, so to speak, and had different strategies for doing so.
Tom Zohar, who plays Jeff, says he stayed far away from reviewing the real Jeff Bowen’s performance as himself. In fact, Bowen’s notes for the actors who would eventually play him emphasized taking “permission to be yourself.”
As Hunter and Jeff bring in two lady friends - attention-seeking Susan and the quiet, more talented Heidi - to help them, the play focuses on the painful process of creating something from scratch.
Karson St. John, who plays Susan, is warm and engaging, which is in direct contrast to her character who is demanding and pushy. St. John says the show reflects something real about making theater, and the creative enterprise in general. In her mind, it captures how close you get to your fellow performers and collaborators, and that feeling of making something "kick ass" with your friends.
Unlike Zohar, St. John dove into the "real" Susan's performance as the character Susan to guide her portrayal. She felt the YouTube-based "[title of show] Show" created by the original cast to promote the show was helpful in understanding her character. Susan may own her apartment and not share the financial worries of her friends, but she's "sold out" by working a corporate day job, and worries she doesn't have the singing chops to keep up with the rest of the cast (a concern St. John admits to sharing).
On my way to "[title of show]," I worried that my lack of knowledge of musical theater would stunt my enjoyment of the play. Though there is plenty of inside baseball for musical theater fans (I could tell by the guffawing all around me), the crux of the story - how hard and wonderful it is to create - is universal.
The tension in the play builds as the four main characters find themselves in the midst of a total meltdown - the kind that happens to collaborators at the height of their success. They start talking about profit-sharing and bitchily correcting one another’s grammar.
And the show's premise is definitely contagious . As we were getting up to leave, Zohar corrected co-star Tony Houck's grammar and caught himself: “That’s so [title of show.]” Everybody laughed, but alas, no one burst into song.
[title of show] plays until August 8th at the Diversionary Theatre on Park Boulevard. Tickets are available online here.