Theatre Review: CATCO’s [title of show] is Explosive, Electric, and Warm
[title of show] is one of the freshest, funniest musicals of the last 10 years (it premiered at a festival in 2004 but its final form didn’t take shape until the 2006 commercial run at Vineyard Theatre). Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell’s (book) show takes one of the hoariest and most often attempted stories of any form or genre – the difficulties inherent in making art – and not only finds new life in that dead horse but makes it sing and dance. CATCO’s production is a delight unlikely to be bettered any time soon.
The small stage is set with a piano and accompanist, Larry (Quinton Jones), in the back and two rolling chairs, one for Jeff (Jonathan Collura) and one for Hunter (Bradley Johnson), as they set upon getting out of their creative slump and writing a new musical from scratch in 3-1/2 weeks to submit for the New York Musical Theatre Festival. In short order, they recruit their friends: Susan (Annie Huckaba), an actress who has mostly given up on the grind and resigned herself to being an office manager, and Heidi (Elisabeth Zimmerman), who has been in two Broadway shows but finds herself having difficulty moving past the ensemble tier. Over two acts, the audience is treated to a madcap run through their little show’s trip to Broadway and a loving skewering of musical theatre history.
The fission and recombination of 20th century styles is one of the biggest delights of this play. “Monkeys and Playbills,” in which Susan appears as a vision saying “writing should be easy, like a monkey driving a speedboat” and Jeff tosses out titles of musicals that flopped, turns into a driving, funky cutup choreographed to Susan and Heidi moving and spinning the men’s chairs. There’s a hilarious, ribald Schoolhouse Rock homage (“An Original Musical”) sung between Jeff and a blank piece of paper (Johnson) who is as foul-mouthed and antagonistic as anyone who’s ever faced that blank piece of paper knows it can be. The inevitable-female-rivals-bond duet is given a fresh coat of paint – and sung to pieces – in “What Kind of Girl is She.” The specter of Sondheim hangs over this meta-theatrical piece most obviously in the Development Montage that fades into “Change It, Don’t Change It,” which recalls “Putting it Together” and “Opening Doors.”
Even without knowledge of earlier musicals, [title of show] works like a charm. The four characters are so beautifully drawn and the lyrical writing is so specific to these situations in this time that the audience has countless hooks to grab onto. Speaking of hooks, the songs are as catchy as they are funny and wise. This musical gets the audience on the characters’ side by acknowledging the drudgery of the work that has to be done but also the exhilaration of making something, especially with your friends and kindred spirits.
This production continues CATCO’s recent tradition of making use of the intimate Studio Three in the Riffe Center as a cabaret space. Not only is [title of show] the right show for the space, it makes excellent use of it. Sound – courtesy of Keya Myers-Alkire – is crystal clear (vitally important in a show with this much rapid-fire wit) and the tiny checkerboard stage makes it feel homespun and just a little ramshackle, comforting, like the audience is there for an early run-through in a bar. Director Joe Bishara knows exactly how to use that, taking advantage of the intimacy with lots of eye contact and some going-into-the-audience as punctuation at times, but never overdoing it – it doesn’t feel like Cats or like a precious attempt to make the audience “part of the show.”
Attention should also be paid to Liz Wheeler’s terrific choreography. It’s hard to choreograph that few people on that small a stage, much less do it in a way that feels like each number has its own character, but she does it every time. For limited choreography, I was dazzled, set back in my chair more than once.
Of course, if you don’t have the right people on stage, every technical thing that’s good won’t matter. CATCO outdid themselves here. Collura’s Jeff is is a revelation – often the straight man with craziness swirling around him, he strikes the right balance of exasperation and love for everyone on stage but also for what they’re doing, for the work. Johnson’s Hunter is a role anyone would envy, flamboyant and zany. While Johnson chews the scenery very well when needed, he also finds a core of humanity to give the character that gravitas that makes the second act conflicts work.
Anne Huckaba’s Susan is a fascinating take, going overboard out of her insecurities at first, but in some ways personifying the arc of the show in coming back to herself as a creative person and acknowledging that fitting in isn’t the worst thing in the world on your own terms. She also galvanizes the rest of the characters, particularly with her stunning act-closer “Die, Vampire, Die,” and her two duets with Zimmerman. Zimmerman’s Heidi is a firecracker with razor-sharp comedic timing, with a lustrous voice that brings moments where the play could have gone schmaltzy, like the “What I Did for Love”-esque “A Way Back to When,” back to human size. The four voices blend so perfectly it’s easy to believe they’re people who’ve actually been singing together off and on for years; it has that kind of deceptively simple nonchalance. And let not a word more go by without crediting Quinton Jones, whose piano never fails to uplift, shade in, and illuminate the songs, and who shines with charm in his few lines.
As the days’ heat gets oppressive, there are few better things I can recommend than having a few nice, cold drinks and seeing this fizzy, refreshing show.
CATCO’s [title of show] runs at 8:00pm Thursday-Saturday and 2:00pm Sunday through July 12, 2015. For tickets and more information visit catco.org.