SUGARHOUSE — Jeff and Hunter have committed to submitting something original to the New York Theatre Festival, but they have only three weeks and no great ideas. Together, they decide to just write about the things that happen while they are trying to write for the festival. No matter what, they will submit whatever they’ve managed to write down. Enlisting the assistance of their friends Heidi and Susan, Jeff and Hunter write a four-person musical about writing a musical accompanied only by piano and performed on an empty stage. After being chosen for the festival, [title of show], as they have named their work, actually has a shot at making it on Broadway. But at what cost? Just before the show’s finale, Jeff and Hunter introduce one of the show’s deepest themes as they decide not to compromise, singing, “I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing than 100 people’s ninth favorite thing.”
After seeing Utah Repertory Theater Company’s production of [title of show], I find myself in the category of the nine for whom the show needed no compromises. Consequently, I recognize that many of my favorite components of this show would be precisely the same aspects which might leave 91 other audience members feeling cold. First, full enjoyment of this production required a certain vocabulary without which the witty dialogue might have end up sounding like another language. This included technical terms from genres spanning music theory, stage direction, and grammar, including “fortissimo,” “9th,” and “dangling participle.” In addition, the script demanded that the audience have at least some exposure to less mainstream musicals such as Chess and Starlight Express and a deep familiarity with Into the Woods. Audience members who have spent time in theatrical rehearsals will also appreciate moments when the characters switched from being in the show to talking about the show. For example, as Heidi (played by Megan Shenefelt) began her solo on “I Am Playing Me,” Jeff (played by Jonathan Scott McBride) stopped her to correct a mistake in the melody. Later, when the same musical phrase repeated, he corrected her again, to which she responded on the pitch she’d errantly sung, “That is the note I’m singing, Jeff!” In another song, the company left the scene to go stand around the piano as Susan (played by Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin) learned her alto part. Finally, the script included a healthy serving of profanity, used in real, deliberate, and hilarious ways. Don’t let the clean “Untitled Opening Number” featured in Utah Repertory Theater Company’s YouTube promos fool you; this cast knows its way around an f-bomb. I appreciated, however, that when the script called for profanity it seemed to always have a reason, and that motivation was frequently to make the scene or song as funny as it could possibly be.
It is unfortunate that the show may have a limited appeal because the production quality was extraordinarily high. Director Jason Bowcutt helped the cast develop characters who could tell this story in a realistic way. I enjoyed the subtle differences between the characters and was impressed that none approached the level of caricature. The movement on stage, while deliberate, seemed natural and easy. I particularly noticed the way Hunter (played by Austin Archer) used his hands almost as much as the dialogue to convey the emotions of the show. The show’s music director, Kevin Mathie, also got to sit on stage in the role of Larry, the union accompanist. He had a front row seat to enjoy the many impressive suspensions included in the real Jeff Bowen’s intricate score. His work on the show’s music paid off, given the decision to forgo microphones for this production. Each note in the four-part harmony had to be balanced live, and the results were impeccable. Equally impressive was the way four distinct voices blended into a smooth unison; I found myself enjoying these moments as much as the dissonant harmonies. Ashley Gardner Carlson‘s choreography was perfect for Bowcutt’s realistic representation of this true story. The movements she planned were clean, funny, and natural, supporting the character development in every way. My favorite moments included watching Archer dance as Blank Paper in “An Original Musical,” and watching the backup dancers during “Die, Vampire, Die.”
Hunter Bell’s script expressed a desire for the resulting work to be seen as more than a collection of sketches and novelty songs—a difficult goal for a show that really was kind of a collection of sketches and novelty songs. The talented company of actors somehow took songs that sometimes made very little sense, like “Monkeys and Playbills,” and rested on their impressive musical abilities to keep my interest. Together, they beautifully danced across the line of playing characters who were fully aware they were characters. Despite the rapid, occasionally frantic pace of the dialogue, the actors’ careful enunciation ensured I didn’t miss a word. Still, it took the development of each individual character, as orchestrated by the actors, to tie together the show’s plot. Archer fully committed to each of Hunter’s many moods, including goofy in “An Original Musical,” hopeful in “The Tony Award Song, ” and combative in “Change It, Don’t Change It” / “Awkward Photo Shoot,” adding a layer of depth to the show which otherwise may not have materialized. As Heidi, Shenefelt’s vocal control allowed her to blend with the ensemble when needed and to stick out at all the right moments. When she commanded the stage for her solo, “Way Back to Then,” her storytelling helped me connect emotionally to the show’s themes. McBride’s carefully delivery allowed Jeff’s character to highlight the strengths of the others. Almost always relegated to the supporting harmonies, Jeff still managed to make an impact, releasing the tension with his literal application of semantics. Finally, Darby-Duffin had the difficult job of taking Susan’s quirky song “Die, Vampire, Die,” and communicating its theme: the doubts and insecurities that plague artists of all kinds should truly just die. Because of her commitment to the details of her character, such as appearing barefoot on stage all night, one of the biggest novelty songs became so much more.
Lest I inaccurately profess that I loved everything about the show, I will have to admit my disappointment during the three montages that took the material from festival to off-Broadway. Thankfully, the interpersonal drama surrounding “Awkward Photo Shoot” pulled me back into the plot. The in-fighting reminded me of everything I had enjoyed so far, most notably the realistic portrayal of real people doing real things. I enjoyed the many phone conversations and voicemail messages used to advance the plot, and I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of some of the show’s actual criticism included verbatim in the script. When Jeff called Hunter and began his message questioning if Hunter ever had days where his name just sounded weird, I couldn’t help but feel I was watching the Seinfeld of musical theater unfold before me. It certainly didn’t hurt that this show never seemed to take itself too seriously, making the sparse Sugar Studio Theater an ideal location.
This show blatantly admits it may not be for everyone. I’m providing a few guidelines to help you decide whether it may be for you. If you’ve ever sung around a piano just for fun, if you can’t say the word “festival” without following it up with several lines from Into the Woods, or if you’ve ever uttered the words, “I can’t. I have rehearsal,” you might just be one of the nine people for whom this show was written. If all you bring to the table is a general enjoyment of musical theatre, you might miss some of the jokes but still appreciate a fresh take on confidence, friendship, and chasing one’s dreams. Even if it only ends up being your 9th favorite thing, you might want to take a chance on [title of show].