By Pete Filicia THE STAR LEDGER
If television can have a big hit show about nothing — why can’t musical theater?
There’s one playing at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. “[title of show]” concerns Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, “two nobodies in New York.” Jeff composes songs that few hear. Hunter writes plays no one sees. But when the two hear that the New York Musical Theatre Festival is looking for new work, they decide to spend their next three weeks writing a show about — writing a show.
“We could put this exact conversation in the show,” Hunter suggests.
“Wait,” Jeff says, trying to understand. “So everything I say from now on could actually be in our show?”
“Yeah,” replies Hunter.
“Like this?” Jeff tests.
“Like this,” Hunter agrees.
And so it goes. Where the application asks for “[title of show],” Jeff and Hunter fill in the space with those exact three bracketed words.
Every quip, observation, complaint and profane word becomes part of their musical.
So do actresses Heidi and Susan. Heidi is held in great esteem because she has – wow! – appeared on Broadway. Susan has less luster because she works in an office.
“[title of show]” is the great-grandson of those Mickey-and-Judy “Let’s put on a show!” movies. This one, however, has a far more realistic take on the jealousy, rivalry and treachery found backstage. And there’s never been a musical with so many inside jokes; indeed, the program includes a two-page glossary. Some frequent theatergoers will pick up the references to “Wicked,” “Into the Woods” and “Rent,” but many will ask, “What are they talking about?”
Bowen and Bell themselves performed the show from its first days in a basement all the way to the 2008 Broadway production. Now they’ve bequeathed their roles to two very winning performers. Insiders will be amused and thrilled to see Seth Rudetsky — the beloved show-tunes deejay on Sirius Radio — portraying Jeff. The irony is that while Rudetsky’s on-air persona is the ultra-fast talker, here he plays (you should pardon the expression) the straight man. Tyler Maynard’s Hunter is the far more flamboyant of the two. But this casting gives Rudetsky the chance to show that he can deliver a full-bodied, finely disciplined and honest performance.
Maynard, whose vocal cords seem to have been dipped in helium, plays flamboyant exceptionally well. Watch him as he pitches his confederates a new idea — that he knows is bad before the sentence is halfway out his mouth. As Susan, Susan Mosher has an expressive face; Al Hirschfeld would have loved to draw her. When singing a song about second-guessing one’s self, she’s first-rate. Lauren Kennedy’s Heidi is equally impressive and provides the show with its greatest drama when there’s talk she may be replaced. Kennedy expertly shows that she’s hurt, but she’ll be steely and strong. She knows the business, and while she’s disappointed, well, that’s life in the theater.
That’s part of [title of show’s] strength. Just as there’s cinema verite, here’s musical theater verite. It offers a reality check for young writers and performers, showing that Irving Berlin lied when he wrote about show business — everything about it is NOT appealing. What is appealing, however, is director Matt Lenz’s top-notch production of “[title of show].”
[title of show]
Where: George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick
When: Through Dec. 12. Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Thursdays and Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m.
How much: $26.50-$63.50. Call (732) 246-7717 or visit GSPonline.org