In recent years, Broadway musicals have made a resurgence in pop culture, from successful film adaptations like Chicago and Dreamgirls to shows that spoof musicals even as they indulge in their conventions. Urinetown and Spamalot, both of which have graced Madison stages within the last year or so, are prime examples of this genre.
University Theatre ratchets up the satire with the local premiere of Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart's Musical of Musicals (The Musical!). While a familiarity with some of musical theater's biggest hits will help you appreciate this fast-paced and mostly very witty show, you don't need to get every single joke to have a good time.
With a small but topnotch cast (two men and two women), this is the sort of energetic confection that makes for good summer entertainment. While the conceit may not be wholly original and some of the targets are easy, it's surely funnier than most of what's playing in the multiplexes.
The set-up ensures a brisk pace. There are five scenes of about 15 to 20 minutes, each in the style of a famed creator of musical theater. We begin on a wholesome, painfully Midwestern note with "Corn," which lovingly skewers earnest Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals like Oklahoma!
"A Little Complex" takes on the neurotic residents of a New York apartment building à la Stephen Sondheim. Peter Bissen, who played the hammy villain in last year's Urinetown, again indulges his darker side as a murderous landlord/artist in the vein of Sondheim's demon barber, Sweeney Todd. Brandishing his paintbrush as if it were a dagger or straight razor, Bissen sings gleefully of killing his victims and coating their corpses with papier-mché.
After taking on Jerry Herman, the production returns with an even stronger second half. While poking fun at the excesses of Andrew Lloyd Webber shows, not even Broadway audiences are spared. Piano accompanist and music director Scott Gendel, who also serves as narrator, intones such things as "The audience applauds the smoke machine."
For me, though, the funniest scene is the last: "Speakeasy" in the style of Kander & Ebb, who created Cabaret and Chicago. The ensemble taps into a decadent mood befitting Weimar-era German cabaret, featuring androgynous men wearing mesh shirts, slinky Fosse-style choreography, and Clare Arena Haden's wonderful turn as a boozy, seen-it-all broad.
Director Patricia Boyette, choreographer Jennifer Stewart and their colleagues have assembled a production that is light, funny and appealing. Cabaret-style seating with candles on the tables adds to the relaxed vibe. But the show wouldn't be as effective without such a strong, nimble cast.
Bissen and Arena Haden, both so good in Urinetown, don't disappoint here. Scott Haden has an excellent voice and hits the right cheesy rock-opera tone in the Lloyd Webber part. Amanda Poulson rounds out an excellent cast. If you love musicals - or, even better, if you have a love/hate relationship with musicals - this show will be right up your alley.
Musical of Musicals (The Musical!), Presented by University Theatre at UW Vilas Hall's Hemsley Theatre, through July 19