Saturday, December 23, 2006

New York December 2006, Day Five: "Gutenberg: The Musical" and "The Vertical Hour"

I love the days when I step into a theater to see something new and unproven, and find there a beautiful gem of a show that few people have yet to see, so I can give you, my dear readers (all seven of you), advance word on a great show. I didn't love today.

I wanted to like "Gutenberg: The Musical." I truly did. I knew it was low-budget, I knew it tried to take an ironic look at the world of Broadway musicals, especially the big, overblown variety. The concept is pretty simple: two guys named Doug and Bud have written a musical based on the life of Johannes Gutenberg. However, since these two guys are both lazy and stupid, they neglect to do any research on Gutenberg and work solely from the piece of information everyone knows about Gutenberg: he invented the printing press and first put it to use mass-producing copies of the Bible. The musical that results features idiotic lyrics and insipid premises (though some catchy tunes -- much better original music than in, say, "The Big Voice") -- but that's the point. It's SUPPOSED to be a bad musical. We're meant to laugh at these two guys for even dreaming they have a shot at Broadway. (Sort of like "Waiting for Guffman" in that aspect.) Bud and Doug are performing the musical under the pretense that we in the audience are there for a backer's audition. Bud and Doug are hoping a producer in the audience will take their show to the big time.

Unfortunately, watching a bad musical - even when it's bad in a winking, hip, ironic way - doesn't change the fact that it's bad. I got some good laughs out of the show, and the actors playing Doug and Bud (Christopher Fitzgerald and Jeremy Shamos) bring a huge amount of energy to the project, but it's just not worth recommending. This territory has been handled far better by "Urinetown" and "The Musical of Musicals: The Musical."

"The Vertical Hour" was another production from which I expected great things. Not because Julianne Moore is in the cast, or because David Hare wrote the play, but because Sam Mendes was directing, and I thought his production of "Gypsy" is perhaps the best-staged, best-directed musical I've every seen. Unfortunately, "The Vertical Hour" did its best to put me in a horizontal position. Julianne Moore was almost completely lost on stage. In fact, none of the actors (including Bill Nighy, who is getting raves for his performance) ever really connected with each other. I was sitting in the second row, and from that proximate vantage point, I was left with the strong feeling that the three leads could just as easily been alone on a blue screen set for all the attention they paid to their fellow performers. The phrase "phoning it in" comes to mind.

Fortunately, the advance word for tomorrow's show is good, so I'm hopeful.

Tomorrow: "Spring Awakening"

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