Area Stage’s ‘[title of show]’ proves a meta musical charmer

 

Area Stage’s ‘[title of show]’ proves itself a little musical with big appeal.

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By Christine Dolen | cdolen@Miamiherald.com

Starting with its title — which happens to be [title of show] — the Obie Award-winning musical by Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell is, well, unusual.

It’s a meta musical that began as a hastily assembled entry for the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival and, four years later, made it to Broadway. It isn’t a show that’s merely about the creative process of making a musical; that creative process is the musical.

Confusing? Not really. Charming and cheeky are better descriptions of [title of show], an inside-theater musical if ever there was one.

Area Stage, which focuses largely on its highly regarded conservatory work, has jumped back into the professional arena with its new production of [title of show] in its handsome home at the back of Coral Gables’ Riviera Plaza.

John Rodaz proves himself as adept at staging musicals as he is at directing dramas, and his casting choices — Chris McCabe as Hunter, Ryan Townsend as Jeff, Jodie Langel as Heidi and Jessica Brooke Sanford as Susan — achieve a gorgeous, powerhouse vocal blend. Add musical accompaniment (and the occasional wry comment) from onstage pianist Jeff Hess as Larry and just-right dollops of choreography from Ron Hutchins, and [title of show] again proves itself a little musical with big appeal.

The characters in the show take their names from creators Bowen and Bell, as well as the original actresses and accompanist. Pals Hunter (McCabe) and Jeff (Townsend) dream of musical theater fame and fortune but pay their bills by working as cater waiters or temps. They decide to enter the New York Musical Theatre Festival competition, but the deadline is just three weeks away. They start writing, but the muses aren’t exactly singing to them.

They soon decide that writing a show about writing a show is more interesting than anything else they’ve come up with. They bring in Heidi (Langel), an actress who has lately been snagging chorus, understudy or swing roles in Broadway musicals, and Susan (Sanford), a quirky pal who’s so burned out on theater that she’s abandoned it for corporate drudgery. Together, they create and sing and bicker and dance, and a musical unfolds.

The writing is funny and knowing, and if the language is sometimes foul, the authors acknowledge that. Theater buffs will dig it the most, as Bowen and Bell reference everything from composing teams (Betty Comden and Adolph Green, John Kander and Fred Ebb) to the stripper Mazeppa in Gypsy. The show’s journey from the festival to the O’Neill Center to Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre to the Lyceum on Broadway gets mentions. So does Bowen and Bell’s YouTube get-us-to-Broadway campaign, The [title of show] Show.

The songs aren’t on a level of, say, the numbers in Avenue Q. They’re decent musical theater numbers, sometimes clever (Die, Vampire, Die!, about the things that kill the creative process, comes to mind) but generally more serviceable than memorable.

Area’s cast, however, more than does them justice.

Langel, who really has performed on Broadway and on tour, gets two strong solos in I Am Playing Me and Part of It All. Sanford takes the vampire song and has a snarky duet with Langel on What Kind of Girl Is She?, and her kooky, droll Susan is irresistible. McCabe and Townsend inhabit the creators’ roles with sass and zest.

And in case you’re wondering: [title of show] takes its title from the space on the festival entry form where musical teams were supposed to enter their show’s title. Bowen and Bell, as they explain in the show, decided to leave it as they found it. How meta.

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