The charm of the early internet era — before the web became an all-consuming necessity and was a seemingly innocent tool for promoting your work — survives in a new revival of “[title of show],” Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell’s autobiographical one-act musical from 2004.
And charm is what this Bridge Production Group show, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, has in spades. Documenting its own creation, from inception through the self-hyping vlogs that would eventually lead to its 2008 Broadway run, “[title of show]” is an appropriately low-stakes affair that knows exactly where it stands as a short-and-sweet entertainment. Bolstered by committed performances from its cast of four and an Olympian of a music director, this production of the meta-musical transcends its bare-bones staging by focusing on the simple joys of a shared theatrical space.
If playing a character based on a real person presents a unique challenge, playing a character based on the person who originally wrote and performed the role — as Bowen and Bell did — is an unenviable task. As Jeff, Max Hunter (who also directs) more than acquits himself as the goal-oriented book writer, imbuing the character’s snappy dialogue and constant grammar corrections with a simmering self-doubt.
He finds an ideal match in the skilled Josh Daniel, who plays the composer-lyricist Hunter Bell, and their alluring chemistry renews itself in every scene. A malfunctioning mic pack at the performance I attended forced Daniel to use a hand microphone, which only helped him further play up his zestful showboating.
The two men decide to enter the New York Musical Theater Festival with only three weeks to complete an original work, and enlist their friends Heidi (based on, and originally played by, Heidi Blickenstaff) and Susan (Susan Blackwell, ditto) to round out their small cast. Those very particular real-life women are perhaps the show’s toughest roles, but Keri René Fuller as Heidi and Jennifer Apple as Susan ground themselves in the characters’ earnest love for their friends and their creative process.
Apple, having to play an un-actorly personality, is somewhat too mannered for the part, at first forcing Blackwell’s deadpan humor into the ensemble’s peppier cadence. It doesn’t help that she is given the bulk of the book’s most dated jokes (remember “random” humor?). Regardless, she delivers the encouraging “Die Vampire, Die!” song, about banishing creative doubts, with the same tenderness that Fuller lends to her 11-o’clock number, “A Way Back to Then.”
Performed outdoors, on the steps of one of the industrial complex’s street-side courtyards, this production relies on Victoria Bain’s lighting design to do most of the technical heavy lifting. As director, Hunter does not employ much of the space’s plain, yet potentially rich, surroundings. This is most felt in the show’s later scenes, when a sudden need for more dynamic choreography kicks in.
Still, seeing these artists (and the actors playing them) delve deep into their own creative misgivings, at a time when the theater industry itself is at a crossroads, is a rejuvenating balm. And witnessing the music director, Jason Weisinger (“Larry,” in the meta-narrative), play the keyboard with one hand, while scrambling to fix a variety of technical issues with the other, was a lesson in assertive scrappiness.
Outdoors, barely-staged and, on the night I saw it, plagued by acts of god, this production of “[title of show]” became a paean to the uneasy but hopeful footing upon which we all find ourselves. Not to mention that at least two droning ambulance sirens provided the cast a meal of ad-libbed material. I’d be hard-pressed to find a more honest theatrical experience right now.
[title of show]
Through Aug. 21 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; bridgeproductiongroup.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.