Arizona Theater Company's [title of show] Appeals to More Than Thespians

Theater queens are no doubt rejoicing that [title of show] is playing now at the Herberger. Others, though they may see and enjoy Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell's charming homage to musical theater, might — even as they're laughing and tapping their feet — be puzzled by the endless references to Mary Stout and Kwamina; to Roma Torre and The Rink.

I was both delighted and confused by David Ira Goldstein's decision to include this rather rarefied backstage musical in Arizona Theater Company's current season. It's great that Goldstein isn't pandering to ATC audiences who, let's face it, are among the more likely theatergoers in the world never to have heard of Comden and Green. And it's nice that we get to see a sweet new musical rather than, say, another production of West Side Story. But even as I was laughing at wisecracks about Henry Sweet Henry and the O'Neill Center, I was wondering whether anyone else was "getting it."

If [title of show] works — and, ultimately, it does — it's because it walks rather brilliantly a fine line between hyperactive in-joke and warmhearted entertainment. Even if one isn't delighted by arcane theater references — and they're abundant here — Bowen and Bell have created a show about a group of friends so amiable and attractive that they could be talking about greengrocery and we possibly wouldn't care.

Those people are, in fact, Bowen and Bell themselves — or at least a musical-theater version of themselves. [title of show] is a musical about a couple of guys who want to write a musical about a couple of guys writing a musical. They are joined by two friends, Heidi and Susan, and an accompanist, Larry, and we watch as the group wrangles over songs about secondary characters and fight over center stage and sing about the rigors of portraying oneself in a musical (the delightful "I Am Playing Me").

In each of its original off-Broadway (first as a contender in the New York Musical Theater Festival; later, at the Vineyard Theater, where it ran for a long stretch in 2006) and Broadway productions, Bowen, Bell, Susan Blackwell, Heidi Blickenstaff, and Larry Pressgrove all played themselves. In this ATC production, we're watching others playing people playing themselves, which further complicates and enhances the old "let's put on a show!" routine.

The real joy in [title of show] is the pleasure it takes in its own self-consciousness. In an early scene, the playwrights are discussing how to make a successful musical, and one asks the other, "Will people come to this show?" Then the pair turns and looks out at us, the audience. Later (in a bit that fell flat at the matinee I attended), one of the characters demonstrates the importance of a stage name by calling another actor by his real name; still later, in a meandering bit about extraneous dialogue, someone announces, "This scene feels long!" and just then, the lights wink out: end of scene.

Just about the time all this show-within-a-show-within-a-show conceit begins to wear thin, Bowen and Bell and company wrap things up with "Nine People's Favorite Thing," the program's only really memorable number. And I left thinking I hadn't enjoyed a finale so much since Paula Wayne's yowza take on "Buckle Down Winsocki."

Look it up.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela

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