Sunday, 3 March 2019

Stage: Four chairs and a keyboard

Title of Show
dir Robert McWhir
music/lyrics Jeff Bowen • book Hunter Bell
Above the Stag, Vauxhall • 13.Feb-10.Mar.19

The intimate space at Above the Stag is a perfect venue for this meta-musical, which is engaging and funny for a general audience and jam-packed with references for theatre fans. Cheeky and just a bit naughty, it's a brisk and likeable show that has a clever rough-around-the-edges feel to it.

At the centre are the composer Jeff (Jordan Fox) and his writer pal Hunter (Michael Vinsen), young guys in New York dreaming of seeing their work on Broadway. With a theatre festival coming up, they decide to create the perfect musical together, struggling against the usual distractions - basically anything is easier than writing. As they settle on developing a musical about two guys trying to develop a musical, they bring in friends Heidi and Susan (Kirby Hughes and Natalie Williams) to play their friends and collaborate on creating the characters and songs. And they have so much fun working on this that they hate to think of it ending.

As it nods to everything from Rent to Carrie, the clever script also takes the time to dig into some deeper themes. Jeff and Hunter understand that they'd have a better chance at success with some stunt casting ("Paris Hilton as Mame!"), and they also face the dilemma between holding fast to their artistic integrity or compromising to bring their work to a larger audience. The sense of their yearning for success is vivid, as is the work they have to do to maintain their friendships. All four cast members explore these edgier elements while at the same time adding constant comical touches. As staged in this space, these are demanding physical performances that make fine use of the knowingly witty songs, scrappy choreography and lively interaction with each other as well as their sardonic keyboardist Larry (played by musical director Aaron Clingham).

Everything unfolds as a knowing pastiche, constantly referring to itself as a musical about a musical, playfully circling around the dialog and dropping punchlines everywhere. It's often very funny, although perhaps not as consistently hilarious as it should be (most notably Williams' Susan, a Megan Mullally type who is amusing but never steals the show). Thankfully each of the characters is strongly sympathetic, easy to identify with and willing to dive into both the big gags and the more subtle wordplay. And the interpersonal drama manages to be touching too. Theatre fans definitely won't want to miss this.

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