"[title of show]" is the clever brainchild of two would-be musical writers, Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen, who created characters based on themselves (Jamison Stern as Hunter and Ian Leonard as Jeff), who then decide to write a musical about themselves writing a musical, to be entered in a new musical festival in three weeks. Facing a seeming Everest, they nevertheless bravely forge ahead, enlisting two talented female friends to assist in developing the work (Laura Jordan as Susan and Farah Alvin as Heidi).
The meta-theatrical, self-referential device just seems cute at first, but as the show develops, the witty dialogue and utterly charming characters draw you in and keep you intrigued as well as laughing with glee. The musical numbers are original enough to avoid cliche but are still singable, with catchy tunes, and the jokes just keep coming.
The musical chronicles the completion and eventual success of the musical, which is, in fact, itself. That means there was no doubt some revision once the musical did in fact begin to rack up ever more professional productions. But the section that questions whether or not the creators should make changes and how that question is resolved has been there from the start — which means the writers were predicting or anticipating their own success. The script keeps us guessing and enjoying the present-vs.-past conundrum.
There are a few serious scenes, as the foursome faces challenges in the work and their friendships, but nothing stays serious long. They endorse their instincts, defy mediocrity and band together with a commitment to be "nine people's favorite thing rather than a hundred people's ninth-favorite thing." The show is inspiring and uplifting, but aims mostly for the funny bone.
The actors are all ideally suited to their roles, and do fabulous jobs with a high-energy, fast-paced show that runs 90 minutes without intermission. Leonard is the one local talent in the group, having performed in several TheatreWorks productions, and he shines as the rather hapless, more down-to-earth composer of the team. Stern has comic chops in spades. He's a master of the one-liner, the snappy comeback and the double entendre, but he also shows serious skills when his character briefly turns control freak.
Jordan starts off as the quiet partner in the mix, the one with a day job and more maturity. But she comes on like gangbusters in a couple of solos, and has marvelous comic timing and a deadpan to die for. Alvin fills the perky musical-theater friend role with an amazing voice and polished dancing acumen. She's got presence, charm and power, and I could listen to her voice all day.
The simple set by Kate Edmunds is mostly effective, although I wondered why there were curtains at odd times, and the glass in one door cast distracting reflections. Lighting by Paul Toben gave us fun color washes for dream scenes, but also sometimes created long shadows. Kikau Alvaro and director Meredith McDonough generated brilliant staging and choreography: lively, interesting and appropriate. It's also great fun to see Bill Liberatore, TheatreWorks' superb musical director, onstage and actually getting to speak.
Don't miss it: TheatreWorks has knocked it out of the park on this one.
What: "[title of show]," a musical presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: Through June 26, with shows at 7:30 Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; and 7 p.m. Sundays.
Cost: Tickets are $19-$56.
Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.
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