NEW YORK CITY — It is not often that a musical opens on Broadway that has roots in Utah, but such is the case this week in the new comedy Gutenberg! The Musical!, playing now at the James Earl Jones Theatre. Way back in 2007, this musical opened at Plan-B Theatre Company in Salt Lake City to much critical praise and then moved to the Egyptian Theatre in Park City soon after.
With music, lyrics and book by Scott Brown and Anthony King, Gutenberg has played practically everywhere but Broadway for years, including productions Off-Broadway, in London, DC, and Connecticut. Now it is opening on Broadway, and the play is very fortunate to have landed the wonderful comic duo of Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells to star in what is a 2-person show. The actors have wonderful chemistry together, and their friendship shines in a script that is as much about their bond as it is about satirizing musical theatre.
The admittedly thin plot focuses on Bud davenport (played by Gad) and Doug Simon (played by Rannells) who have pooled all their resources together to pitch a new Broadway musical to the “producers” in the audience (one of which appears at the end as a special guest.) Their show is historical fiction (similar to Something Rotten!) about the inventor of the printing press, Johann Gutenberg. Like The Drowsy Chaperone, this play seeks to poke fun at the tropes of musical theatre while still trying to have a book that is more than just parody.
Rannells and Gad are the main strength of Gutenberg. Their winning chemistry makes the schtick work better than it probably should, and they successfully fight for jokes, even when there is not much on the page for them to work with. They also have a lot of fun with Scott Pasks’s simple sets and Emily Rebholz’s costumes including a table full of over 20 hats that are all labeled with the many characters they are portraying. At several points in the narrative both Doug and Bud are wearing whole stacks of hats and rapidly going from one character to another as they transition through the scene. The hat gag reminded me of a similar construct in The 39 Steps where two actors portray multiple characters on stage at the same time and switch between them putting on different hats. It is a fun and charming gimmick for a satire like this show.
In fact, this is a musical that manages to do a lot with a little. Director Alex Timbers also keeps the actors moving around the stage so that the two hours does not feel stagnant or bland. Something is always happening, even if it is as simple as the men moving or a sign changing.
When Gutenberg was first workshopped it was a 45-minute one-act show and one cannot help but wonder if that approach was the best for the material. Unlike Chaperone and Rotten, there is not enough meat on the satirical bone in this fictional Gutenberg as there is for the history of Broadway or the complete works of Shakespeare, respectively. In fact, does Gutenberg need to be a musical at all? I was not left humming a tune or even feeling that any of the songs were memorable, significant or funny. Nearly all the successful jokes are in the book and not the music and lyrics. The show also began to feel a little repetitive and long, especially as it went into Act II with the same basic jokes recycled multiple times.
The production does feature a live band on stage, which the actors interact with on occasion, and music director Marco Paguia coordinates these interactions well particularly with the pianist, who has to work to keep up with the quick banter of these two goofballs on stage.
Fortunately for the audience, a simple show like this comes down to the casting, and Gad and Rannells really make Gutenberg into an enjoyable evening of theatre. It feels like the audience is sitting in on their mutual riffing with each other. There is even a peak into their personal lives, with Gad poking fun at his boring married life with two kids and Rannells being happily gay and married. It is clear that these two love spending time together, and it makes the whole experience pleasant, even if the jokes are not fully uproarious.
Gutenberg! The Musical! plays on Broadway and is worth seeing, if only for the wonderful chemistry between its stars. Any readers who get a chance to visit the Big Apple should check it out. It’s a worthy of a tip of the hat.