Today, the Bard’s “All the world’s a stage” has been effectively reversed to “The stage is all the world.” From Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author to Jerry Seinfeld and Larry Davis’ “show about nothing” to Charlie Kauffman’s Synecdoche, New York to the myriad of “unscripted” reality television shows, the post-modern urge to blur what is performance and what is life is becoming more and more common. It seems perfectly natural, then, that [title of show], a 90 minute one-act musical written about the writing of a musical for the New York Musical Theatre Festival, is currently playing as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival.
[title of show] follows the real-life adventures of real-life buddies Hunter Bell (played by Travis Dixon, who also choreographs) and Jeff Bowen (Christopher Maikish) as they frantically work, with the help of their actress friends, Heidi (Heather Lake) and Susan (Julia Plostnieks), to conceive and create a musical in just 3 weeks’ time. That their musical will be accepted to the festival is never in doubt – after all, we are seeing it onstage and it would never get to our stage unless it got to the New York stage. It’s this type of meta-reality that becomes a major thematic source of humor:
Jeff: You haven’t said anything.
Susan: I didn’t have a line until now.
Because this musical is a Fringe Musical, the set is minimal (as is discussed multiple times in the production) and consists of “4 chairs… and a keyboard.” Behind that …keyboard is the taken-for-granted Larry (musical director Jim Blackett) who provides the necessary accompaniment for the show. The meta-reality conceit is further heightened when the players sometimes interrupt themselves to talk directly to Larry and refer to his obvious physical stage presence when, in fact, he isn’t part of the story and wasn’t even present during the events chronicled by the show.
This musical is written by über-fans of Broadway for über-fans of Broadway. As a result, there are inside jokes aplenty about musicals and, to a lesser degree, New York City. I know this because he who laughs last didn’t get the joke and there was a lot of genuine laughter around me for most of the evening in obvious response to lines whose context totally escaped me. This may explain why, despite making it to the Great White Way, [title of show] did better in smaller venues and off-Broadway where the demographics were tighter and more musical theater geeked. Nevertheless, like the best of cult-oriented works, there is plenty here for even the uninitiated like myself: anyone who has ever had to produce something original under deadline pressure will appreciate this show.
[title of show] opens on a nearly blank stage (with only 4 chairs… and a keyboard) in the distant past of 2004, a time before the demise of flip phones, CDs, Kitty Carlisle Hart, and the Hostess Company (all of which are referenced in the script) and when the role of Kim Kardashian was played by Paris Hilton. The first half of the musical follows its creation – including the overwhelming desire to procrastinate – and culminates with the filling out of paper forms (how quaint!) for submission to the festival. The second half chronicles the success of [title of show] and the long process to get it to Broadway (including a sequence about the [title of show] show YouTube videos that Hunter and Jeff used to keep the dream alive). Although the latter portion of the show felt literally tacked-on (it was!), it contains the rhythmic chant, “Change It, Don’t Change It,” that stayed with me long after the final black out – perhaps because it so accurately captures the persistent pounding of those inner rewrite demons.
Although produced under the Hollywood Fringe Festival banner, this production of [title of show] has a decidedly strong professional polish to it. It is exciting, and increasingly rare, to see mic-less actors tightly harmonizing to live accompaniment in such an intimate setting. The ensemble has a very real chemistry and the characters’ close friendships are instantly believable.
All cast members are strong actors as well as strong singers and this is significant for a script where character, rather than song, is the driving force. The bespectacled Christopher Maikish is perfect as the gentle, sweet web-designer, Jeff, whose artistic ambitions remain pure no matter how popular his creation becomes. Julia Plostnieks plays Susan with a delightfully ditsy enthusiasm (there is no doubt she thinks the O’Neill Theater Center was named after Shaquille) and, despite being the actress-who-gave-up, clearly understands how to conquer artistic terrors as evidenced when she owns the stage during her spotlight song “Die, Vampire, Die!” Add to this mix Heather Lake’s goofy Heidi, the perennial actress on the periphery (fringe), who still tirelessly believes in herself. Lake shines with a guardian-angelic voice when her ballad, “A Way Back to Then,” reminds the group of the original artistic inspiration behind [title of show]‘s creation. Travis Dixon’s Hunter is the show’s engine: it is he who is determined to get to Broadway, whatever the cost to art or friendships. Dixon infuses Hunter with a nuanced humanity allowing us to appreciate his struggle between the show and the business and Dixon’s choked back tears when he hears Lake’s ballad are both real and redemptive. Finally, Jim Blackett not only provides the live music required, he also plays the only-speak-when-spoken-to …keyboardist Larry and steals the show the few times he is permitted to open his mouth. Corey Lynn Howe, making her directorial debut, wisely avoids punching up the punchlines and instead has her cast give natural performances. The relative lack of prescribed action in the script does allow for a stronger directorial imprint than Howe decided to take, however.
The modest production requirements of [title of show] (“4 chairs… and a keyboard”) and the strong, playful, music theater cast assembled ironically allow this particular Hollywood Fringe show staging of a fringe show about the creation of a fringe show to avoid the negative connotations often associated with a fringe show. In fact, this solid, well-performed [title of show] will easily please those outside the Fringe’s core audience.
And what more could a good post-modernist ask for?
Final thoughts on the 2013 Hollywood Fringe Festival: Ich bin ein Frïnger
Originally published June 20, 2013 in Bitter Lemons.