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[title of show] at Above The Stag Theatre | Review

L to R Natalie Williams, Michael Vinsen, Jordan Fox, Kirby Hughes - Photographer RBGSTUDIOS.
L to R Natalie Williams, Michael Vinsen, Jordan Fox, Kirby Hughes – Photographer RBGSTUDIOS.

Hunter and Jeff are two unsuccessful, impoverished writers of musicals who find out that the New York Musical Theatre Festival are looking for submissions for new musicals. The two friends think this could be their entry into the world of musical theatre – the problem is they only have three weeks to write one! However, they decide to go for it and create an original piece but they have no idea what to write about. Then inspiration hits them and they decide to write a musical about them writing a musical about two guys writing a musical! And that’s basically the plot of [title of musical] which has this odd name because it’s the question at the top of the entry form for the festival and it’s the first thing Hunter and Jeff could think of when they were trying to find a title for the show!

[title of musical] is the true story of Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell and their journey from collaborating in Jeff’s apartment in New York to this musical about a musical ending up on Broadway. With help from their friends Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell, the journey encompassed an off-Broadway production, a podcast on YouTube telling the world that the show had been picked up for a production on Broadway (it hadn’t) and then an actual Broadway production at The Lyceum Theatre; all events that are depicted in the show.

This is meta-theatre at its most meta with in-jokes, references to other musicals such as Into The Woods, mentions of other Broadway shows (even very obscure ones such as Bagels & Yox – who knew). The book from Bell is superb with some great gags such as “But he’s straight” “I know but so is spaghetti until it gets wet”. There’s also a superb piece of dialogue where Jeff puts Hunter straight (no pun intended) about the proper use of the words “bring” and “take” – a particular bug-bear of this writer! The dialogue throughout has authentic New York smarts and the show sparkles with energy and wit. It’s campy and zingy and although written in 2004, it has a freshness that regular updates over the past 15 years bring to the show. It satirises the world of musical theatre in a way only those who work in it can.

The sixteen or so songs from Bowen are superb; there are one or two weaker ones but what musical doesn’t have those. The standouts are “Nine People’s Favourite Things”, “An Original Musical” and “Monkeys and Playbills”.

Using just four chairs and a few props, Robert McWhir has conjured up some theatrical magic. He directs with a deftness that allows the four actors to spread their wings and fly. There’s a lot of movement throughout the show and although The Studio at Above The Stag, isn’t very big, it never feels cramped. This isn’t surprising as McWhir directed a production of Follies at the even smaller (and much missed) Landor in Clapham. He’s aided and abetted by choreographer William Spencer and some of the best lighting I’ve seen in a small theatre for a long time from lighting designer Jack Weir.

As for the cast, all four members are superb. Jordan Fox plays Jeff with a vulnerability and anxious, pessimism that endears him to the audience. Michael Vinsen as Hunter is more of an optimist and pushes the show to be a big commercial success. This causes a bit of a rift in their relationship but their friendship is too strong to let it affect them for too long. Kirby Hughes as Heidi plays an actress who keeps failing auditions but she too is determined to make the show work and helps the two writers with her infectiousness and brio. Natalie Williams as the often depressed Susan is a real muse to the pair and although she’s stuck in a dead-end job, the show probably wouldn’t have gotten written without her. The fifth member of the cast is Larry the accompanist on this occasion was Oli George Rew who not only played superbly but eventually gets a few lines of his own, even
becoming upset when he’s not included in the photoshoot for the publicity material!

This is the perfect revival for the third location of Above The Stag Theatre – and the nicest one so far and producer Peter Bull should be congratulated on having two superb shows running at the same time in the same place (Grindr The Opera having just won an Offie for Best New Musical). If you love musicals, you’ll really love [title of show]. And if you only like musicals, you’ll love [title of show].

5 Star Rating

Review by Alan Fitter

Jeff and Hunter have just three weeks to write a musical! So they recruit some friends and pull off the impossible, getting selected for a prestigious musical theatre festival. But that’s when the egos start to clash, and everything begins to unravel…

PRODUCTION TEAM
Director – Robert McWhir
Musical Director – Aaron Clingham
Associate Musical Director – Oli George Rew
Choreographer – William Spencer
Set Designer – Stewart J Charlesworth
Lighting Designer – Jack Weir
Producer – Peter Bull for Above The Stag Theatre

CAST
Jordan Fox – Jeff
Kirby Hughes – Heidi
Michael Vinsen – Hunter
Natalie Williams – Susan

[title of show]
by Jeff Bowen (Music and Lyrics) and Hunter Bell (Book)
13 February – 10 March
Tuesday – Saturday 7.15pm, Sunday 2pm and 5.30pm
1 hr 45 minutes including interval
http://www.abovethestag.com/

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