'[title of show]' aims high, and Northlight hits it
Accuse "[title of show]" of being an esoteric, navel-gazing meta musical targeting die-hard theater geeks all that you want. The show's original creators/performers and the local re-creators for the Chicago-area premiere at Northlight Theatre are fully aware that this modern-day Broadway musical about the creative process of writing a highly idiosyncratic Broadway musical is a fun exercise in self-reflexivity and messing around with common theatrical conventions.
If this all sounds too complicated, don't worry. "[title of show]" is an appealing musical that also comically and touchingly depicts the dreams of aspiring writers and actors who hope to hit it big on the Great White Way, while showing off the unconventional ways and determination needed to ultimately achieve lofty goals.
"[title of show]" started in 2004 as two gay musical theater fanatics and friends, the aspiring actor/songwriter Jeff Bowen and actor/playwright Hunter Bell, collaborated to write a musical about their process of writing a musical. They did so in three weeks time to enter in the first New York Musical Theatre Festival, and the musical's title came from the entry form asking for the "title of show." In the ensuing years, Bowen and Bell further developed their own story about their creative process with actor friends Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell (complete with obscure musical theater references) through multiple iterations when the show played off-Broadway in 2005 and 2006 and finally landed on Broadway in 2008.
"[title of show]" is a ground-up tale of success and self-determination and self-doubt if ever there was one. If the first half is overly cutesy in its depiction of creativity run amok in the songs "An Original Musical" and "Monkeys and Playbills," the latter half turns rather serious as the state of commercial Broadway theater comes to the fore and the friendships between the creators and performers start to fray amid talk of revisions and potential cast changes.
Yet there's an extra layer of theatricality involved in Northlight Theatre's clever take. The show's original creators/performers are played here by other actors now that "[title of show]" has been licensed out to be produced by other theater companies like Northlight. So when the show's creators come to see "[title of show]" in Skokie on Sunday, May 20, Bowen and Bell will be watching others portraying themselves onstage.
I'd like to think that they will be impressed with what they see, since Northlight's take teems with loads of affable talent. Director Peter Amster has concocted a zippy production featuring a very engaging cast.
As songwriter Jeff and playwright Hunter, Stephen Schellhardt and Matthew Crowle are respectively well-matched with their boundless enthusiasm and humorous potty mouths (a characteristic that gets introspectively examined later in the show). As their friends, Christine Sherrill impresses as the Broadway veteran Heidi with an amazing voice and McKinley Carter is quirkily amusing as the "corporate whore" who finds time from her day job to help the guys out.
Expertly backing everyone up is the accompanist and music director Doug Peck, portraying the onstage keyboard player Larry, who is cozily ensconced in Christopher J. Fitzgerald's set of a rehearsal studio.
Rather than being a musical based upon a successful movie or a string of jukebox hits, "[title of show]" is a refreshingly original work that not only reflects its time, but also shows the deep love for the art form of musical theater and the joy of creating and performing. So who cares if some of the arcane references might go over your head? "[title of show]" also aims squarely at the heart, and it hits the bull's eye many times.
"[title of show]"★ ★ ★
Location: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, (847) 673-6300 or northlight.org
Showtimes: 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (no matinee May 23 and no evening show May 30), 7:30 p.m. Thursday (also May 29), 8 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday (no evening shows May 20 or June 10); through June 10
Running time: About 95 minutes with no intermission
Parking: Free parking in lot and garage behind the theater complex
Rating: For teens and older; contains profanity, mature themes