jayme armstrong, justin bott, shelley simester
and mark allan
The idea is one that a great many of us have encountered at one time or another, while working on a grade school French sketch, writing a puppet show at summer camp, or even developing a play within a collective- “Let’s write about this moment right now! Our show will be about the process of writing a show!” It’s an idea that I find is often tossed out, but rarely one that can find its way off the ground. Yet, with the perfect amount of postmodern, metatheatrical dexterity and a strong dose of heart, Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen succeeded in bringing this concept to life (and to Broadway!) with [title of show]. Angelwalk Theatre presents their production of this show, playing at the Toronto Centre for the Arts Studio Theatre until October 10th, 2010.
[title of show] chronicles its own creation from two zealous Broadway aficionados, Jeff and Hunter, with a comprehensive knowledge of American theatre history, legend and minutiae beginning to write an original musical for the New York Musical Theatre Festival to the show opening, with the addition of their friends Heidi and Susan, at the Lyceum Theatre, where [title of show] actually ran for one hundred and two performances. The show is a cornucopia of inside jokes for those in “the industry,” with continual references to obscure Broadway stars (Mamie Duncan Gibbs, anyone?!), shows that few people have heard of (Bagels and Yoxs, Holiday Theatre 9/12/1951-2/12/1952) and the trials and tribulations of a life as a contemporary actor in New York. Yet, I think that the humour in [title of show] also branches outward because of its self-referential nature. Bowen and Bell are playing tongue in cheek homage and celebrate a specific way of life in a way that encourages laughter on both sides of the joke. Hunter Bell’s book is well constructed, with an affable, colloquial charm, but it is really Jeff Bowen’s music which gives this show its deep-rooted poignancy. The song “Die, Vampire, Die” is an anthem against insecurity and self-doubt which urges not only artists, but everyone, to believe in the power of their own ability in a way that is fresh, funny and inspiring. “A Way Back to Then” has become a favourite for young musical theatre heroines to sing in Cabarets and to record on their solo albums because it captures so beautifully the dream that propels so many of us toward this life we have chosen, a dream that sometimes gets lost amid working at coffee shops, endless auditions that seem to lead only to despair and the cynicism and monotony that is sometimes packaged with experience. “Nine People’s Favourite Thing” urges us all to follow our own true voices and to never lose sight of our vision in pandering to other people’s perception of what we could or should be.
The Angelwalk production is directed by Tim French, with musical direction by Anthony Bastianon (who also plays the role of Larry, the Musical Director). The choreography is high-energy and fun, while still capturing the grassroots vibe of the show and the harmonies are tight to perfection. Justin Bott is very funny as Hunter, a somewhat slothful writer who develops an impatient bitchiness as his need for this musical to become a hit escalates. Bott is especially hysterical in a song in which he plays a blank piece of paper and he is equally as heartrending in expressing Hunter’s passion for the theatre. I think it is a challenge for a different set of actors to step into a show that was so closely tailored to the personalities, the dynamics and the strengths of a particular collective of artists. There are parts of this show where I feel like the rhythm of the dialogue is slightly off kilter, and the intimacy between the characters does not seem as developed as it could be. Jayme Armstrong plays Heidi, a Broadway understudy/swing/dance captain/ensemble member who has become disenchanted with moulding herself to fit the track and longs for artistic self expression. Armstrong sings “A Way Back to Then” with a gorgeous belt and lots of soul. Mark Allan is seamless as Jeff, the neurotic, dorky, Grammar Nazi, sweet, meticulous composer. Allan seems so comfortable in Jeff’s skin, as though portraying this character were the simplest thing in the entire world, and this ease helps to blur the lines of reality and fiction in this metatheatrical show. For someone who is familiar with [title of show], I think the most difficult part for an actor to step into is the role of Susan because Susan Blackwell brought such a unique and distinctive energy and personality to her part. Shelley Simester shrewdly does not try to imitate Blackwell, but brings her own interpretation to the part, which I think suits this production nicely, but it also means that this Susan departs from the Original Cast much more dramatically than Allan, Bott and Armstrong’s characters do. Simester has great comedic timing, although I think she could benefit from being a bit more aggressive with some of her lines, but she really shines gorgeously with her earnest vulnerability in “Die, Vampire, Die.”
[title of show] is much more than just its gimmick, it is a truly emotional love letter to the theatre that I hope helps to remind everyone of the real reason that we are all here, trying to connect so that we can be who we want to be in this world in the hopes of flying again.
[title of show] plays at the Studio Theatre at the Toronto Centre for the Arts (5040 Yonge Street) until October 10th, 2010. For tickets or more information please call 415.872.1111 or go online to www.angelwalk.ca.