Nothing comes of not much in ‘title of show’
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org May 15, 2012 9:04PM
Christine Sherrill (from left), Matthew Crowle, Stephen Schellhardt and McKinley Carter (with Doug Peck at the piano) are featured in “title of show” at Northlight Theatre.
‘[title of show]’
◆ Through June 10
◆ Northlight Theater, 9201 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
◆ Tickets, $25-$60
◆ (847) 673-6300;
Updated: June 17, 2012 8:09AM
You’ve got to hand it to composer-lyricist Jeff Bowen and writer Hunter Bell, the creators of ‘title of show,’the self-erasingly-named musical that played Off Broadway in 2006, on Broadway (briefly) in 2008, and is now in its Chicago debut at Northlight Theatre under the direction of Peter Amster.
As the show’s final number explains, they consciously chose to go full steam ahead with a show wholly true to their own impulses, rather than twisting their material into something with wider appeal. And if, as the song says, it only becomes “Nine People’s Favorite Thing,” so be it.
Be careful what you wish for.
‘title of show’ is an unabashedly self-referential story about the very process of creating a musical “from scratch” (with no books or movies to serve as a source). A quirky, post-modern sort of notion, the result, despite some funny, clever moments, is mostly annoying.
The problem is not that this is “too inside,” since audiences know all about the process of creating a Broadway musical by way of the television series, “Smash,” and shows like Jonathan Larson’s infinitely more entertaining “tick, tick...BOOM!” (now in a sensational Porchlight Music Theatre production).
Rather, the rub here is that the two eponymously named musical-making characters — Jeff (played by Stephen Schellhardt) and Hunter (Matthew Crowle) — are gay slacker nerds (“show-mos” as they are referred to here, meaning homosexuals in love with show biz), who lack much charm or galvanizing talent. And even the zesty presence of the two far more interesting actresses who help them write the show can’t entirely compensate.
Those actresses are the quick-witted Susan, (played by the always smart McKinley Carter) who has a flair for wordplay and an office day job that is making her solvent but miserable, and Heidi (played by Christine Sherrill, whose fabulous belt voice and sexy presence are the main reasons to see this show), who has a big personality but only minor Broadway credits.
A fifth character, the piano accompanist throughout (as well as the show’s “genuine” musical director), is played by Doug Peck, whose brief verbal outbursts are a hoot.
The story here (with all the expected little nods to Sondheim) begins with Hunter and Jeff deciding to write a new musical to submit to a major festival, and they’ve got just three weeks in which to get it done. The script and songs are more or less verbatim renderings of the process that unspools in their grungy Hell’s Kitchen office as they battle their self-critical personal demons (in a song titled “Die Vampire, Die!), try to avoid the usual musical cliches, interact personally (Heidi and Susan sing the amusing “What Kind of Girl Is She?”), endure the workshop process, fill out the festival entry form, argue about the show’s commercial future, and more.
The ensemble work is tight, and the performers are game. But the whole thing could have been a very efficient, long-form improv sketch running 20 minutes rather than a 90-minute show.