The conclusion to the off-Broadway hit musical [title of show] suggests it’s better to be nine people’s favourite thing than one hundred people’s ninth favourite thing, summing up this gem of a musical perfectly. This is a show you will either get on-board with from the very beginning and love through to the end, or not fully understand or appreciate. After opening initially in 2004 it has relied on a loyal core fan base, and not the commercial audiences of shows such as ‘Matilda’ and ‘Mamma Mia!’ that it also pokes fun at. Whilst one possible division may be between those musical theatre enthusiasts who will enjoy tallying the casual musical and textual references to ‘Into the Woods’ and those who have never heard of the term ‘Playbill’ before, there is plenty for both camps to enjoy in this most welcome London premiere.
The show has an interesting history, and one that is told within the musical itself, evolving from a short production at the New York Musical Theatre Festival to and off-Broadway and Broadway opening. The tone of the show is extremely unique, and any production relies on this being set early to allow the audience to buy into the material and overall concept. The musical itself is about ‘two guys trying to write a musical about two guys trying to write a musical’, which has the potential to be self indulgent if not utterly confusing. Hunter Bell’s book is completely self conscious, with frequent breakouts to the audience, constantly reminding them that they are actually part of a true story that has evolved over time. Whilst the Broadway production had the added bonus of being performed by the writers themselves, any subsequent production will always feel somewhat muddled due to the mix in reality, where actors play real life characters playing themselves. In this case, it works and you find yourself both invested with the form, yet also free to sit back and relate emotionally to each character.
Robert McWhir’s direction is effective at making the piece hang together as a successful narrative, dealing with the passing of time well. He is careful to find a pathos in the drama, juggling the tensions within the team alongside the more overt comedy that allows the piece to feel honest and not gimicky. He avoids the trap of letting the piece feel too trivial and narrow, making it appeal to a wider audience base than just those who can count the number of flop shows they remember from the song ‘Monkeys and Playbills’.
Benjamin Newsome’s casting is exceptional, and the cast are without a doubt the strongest element of the production. Simon Bailey as Jeff and Scott Garnham as Hunter drive the comedy and are responsible for setting up the convention and tone of the show – something they manage to do perfectly. They pitch themselves at the exact level, never overdoing it or feeling too much like performers. Their voices are strong, clear and responsible, and it is a delight to hear them untreated without reliance on amplification. Sophia Ragavelas as Heidi and Sarah Galbraith as Susan are equally impressive, yet take more time to settle into themselves. Ragavelas starts too big and feels the most like an actor, which goes against the nature of the show and the work of the men have put in during the exposition. She soon settles down to the right level, showing off her exceptional vocals with a standout eleven-o’clock-number “A Way Back to Then”. Together they work exceptionally hard, always allowing each other to shine and are perfectly in sync with what is going on around them onstage.
The production suits the intimate Landor Theatre perfectly. The set evokes a modern day rehearsal studio, and creates a perfect muti-functional playing space that matches the simplicity of the plot and allows the four characters to move seamlessly between locations, keeping the pace steady, which will only improve throughout the run. I would say this was a production totally free from smoke and mirrors, but an overuse of haze seems wholly unnecessary and takes away from the reality of the situation making it feel like a sweaty Tennessee Williams drama. Michael Webborn’s musical direction (and role as Larry) are particular highlights and he has created a tight vocal sound that perfectly suits its surroundings. He brings the score to life with just a piano, proving that less can almost certainly be more. [title of show] is a must see fringe highlight, and one that will hopefully be enjoyed by a wide audience, and like the show itself progress to a much bigger stage.
OfficialTheatre.com reviewed the show at a final preview.
[title of show] runs at the Landor Theatre in Clapham from August 7th – 14th September 2013