Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2008
If you are a fan of the American musical theatre (and the work of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber) over the last 50-75 years, you will just LOVE “The Musical of Musicals: The Musical,” a 2003 off-Broadway hit being given the perfect production at the Theater Barn. It is roll-on-the-floor funny, but ONLY if you understand what is being made fun of, and it is not enough to be able to hum a few tunes – you really have to have an in-depth knowledge of the work of the composers and lyricists being parodied.
Creators Joanne Bogart and Eric Rockwell, who also appeared in the original production, quickly realized that no one wanted or needed a “new” musical. What they wanted was a rehash of the old ones. So, using the very basic plot of the young ingénue who can’t pay her rent (Rent…wasn’t there a musical about that topic?) and, despite the good advice of her mother/aunt/best friend, has to be rescued from the machinations of her evil landlord by the handsome hero, Bogart and Rockwell created five mini-musicals, each written in the style of a famous composer or composer/lyricist team.
In order of appearance we have:
“Corn!” in the style of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
“A Little Complex” in the style of Stephen Sondheim
“Dear Abby” in the style of Jerry Herman
“Aspects of Junita” in the style of Andrew Lloyd Webber
“Speakeasy” in the style of John Kander and Fred Ebb
If the titles of these shows don’t make you laugh or the names of the composers and lyricists make you scratch your head, you are already disqualified from enjoying “Musical of Musicals.”
Performing all the roles in all the shows are four talented folks – Megan Rozak (the ingénue), Jerielle Morwitz (the soubrette), Daniel Moser (the handsome hero), and James Anthony Fernandes (the villain). In addition, pianist and musical director Adams Jones acts as the narrator. There is no set to speak of – just a few chairs and a small rolling metal staircase – and no costumes – everyone’s wearing basic black. On large upstage screen the titles of the shows are projected.
Director Bert Bernardi, who I assume also did the choreography, knows exactly what he’s doing. Many of these composers have choreographers whose work is ubiquitous with theirs – such as Agnes deMille for Rodgers and Hammerstein and Bob Fosse for Kander and Ebb – and each mini-musical requires its own look, sound, and mood.
These little wonders – each better than the best Carol Burnette show sketch and about as long – are love letters from Bogart and Rockwell to the theatre they obviously love. Almost every word and note and movement is funny in some way, and all the true theatre buffs in the audience (it was a press opening, after all) were doubled over from start to finish.
Even if you don’t know every word and every note of every show these folks wrote, there is still some fun to be had watching and listening to the talented cast. Rozak and Morwitz, both returning for their third Theater Barn season, are not only attractive women and fine singers, but gifted comediennes who aren’t afraid to look and sound ridiculous when the occasion calls for it – as it does frequently here. Moser and Fernandes also fall into the attractive/fine singer category, and are a nice match for the ladies. Rozak is petite, blonde, and curvaceous, while Morwitz is a slightly taller, redheaded, and curvaceous (if you like women with curves in all the right places, this is show for you!) Moser is tall and gangly, while Fernandes is a slight man. All four performers are gifted with rubber faces and a talent for switching accents.
What the creators and this production do so well is capture the feel and energy of each composers style without belaboring the point. The show runs a mere 90 minutes including an intermission, so nothing lasts too long but everything lasts long enough to get spoofs of most, if not all, of the artists’ greatest works. “Corn!” has reminders of “Oklahoma!” “Carousel,” “The King and I,” and “The Sound of Music;” while “A Little Complex” combines elements of “Sweeney Todd,” “Company,” “Into the Woods,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Follies,” and “A Little Night Music” (bet you didn’t think that was possible in 10-15 minutes, did you?)
The Kander and Ebb parody takes place in a cabaret in Chicago, and all the heroines in “Dear Abby!” are middle-aged women with unconventional life-styles, or middle-aged men dressed as middle-aged women with outrageous lifestyles. In “Aspects of Junita” the narrator informs us cheerfully whenever the audience applauds the scene change or the fog machine. Morwitz gets to do a mean Norma Desmond in the “Sunset Boulevard” bit – so good that I think she might be made for the role.
While the dialogue and lyrics are always perfect, Rockwell’s music often falls just short of being a true echo of the original. I was hoping for musical parody as brilliant as Eric Idle and Neil Innes’ “The Rutles,” and was generally disappointed. I joked with Bernardi as we entered the theatre that this would be the show that I could almost sing all the songs from – meaning that the melodies would be sooooo familiar, yet different – but in general they were merely reminiscent.
My other caveat is that the show was so short and so much raw material was left untapped. Where was the show in the style of Lerner and Loewe, Bock and Harnick, or Brecht and Weill (of whom Kander and Ebb are very pale and safe imitation)? Or the one in the style of Cole Porter, Cy Coleman, Leonard Bernstein, or Irving Berlin? Or, if we’re being all Late 20th Centruy, where’s the spoof of Stephen Schwartz, William Finn, Flaherty and Aherns, Jeanine Tesori, or Jonathan Larsen? Do I smell a sequel?
If you are a true theatre nut and get a big, big kick out of this production. If you think that Rodgers and Hart was an automat on the corner of Lex and 58th, you’d better stay home. “The Musical of Musicals: The Musical” is not great theatre, it just makes fun of great theatre, and that makes for great theatrical fun.
Musical of Musicals: The Musical runs through August 3 at the Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs an hour and a half with one intermission and is suitable for bona fide theatre fanatics of all ages. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008