Chris Tiernan and Stuart Mott in University Theatre's [title of show].
I'll say this about [title of show], the new musical being staged by University Theatre at Vilas Hall's Mitchell Theater. It's not a perfect show, but it's a perfect show for university students to do.
[title of show] is peppy, extremely accessible and -- most of all -- it speaks to the ambitions and anxieties of young people striving to pursue their dreams. Its theater-world characters vacillate between visions of grandeur (we'll win Tony Awards!) to doubt (everyone will hate us!).
Written by Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, the musical tells the story of, well, Jeff and Hunter as they quickly throw together a script to submit to a musical theater festival. With its "meta" conceit, the show recaps their process, from phone calls to brainstorming sessions to rehearsals with their actor pals, Susan and Heidi.
[title of show] is a strange brew: while the self-referential concept is not truly new (there have already been plays about making plays, and movies about making movies), it's pushed pretty far here. When a character comments something like, "Hey, this scene feels like it's gone on too long," the scene abruptly cuts out, prompting giggles from the audience.
As Hunter and Jeff dream of their show someday making it to Broadway (which, after an off-Broadway stint, it did in 2008), they slog through day jobs like catering, temping and web design. Like 20-somethings themselves, their show is a blend of the flippant and the painfully earnest.
Packed with pop-culture references and current slang, this show seems just right for college students and high-schoolers (as long as their parents don't object to a few swear words).
The ensemble of Stuart Mott as Hunter, Chris Tiernan as Jeff, Alli Rekow as Susan and Haley Kosup-Kennedy as Heidi has a friendly, believable chemistry. While this is not the kind of show that lodges songs in your brain instantly, the group number "Nine People's Favorite Thing," near the end of the show, is the catchiest. The characters avow they'd rather be "nine people's favorite thing, than a hundred people's ninth-favorite thing."
"Die Vampire, Die!" gives Rekow a chance to shine in a song about slaying the demons of self-doubt, one of the sharper, more honest tunes in the show (throughout the show, Rekow gives Susan a bit of edge that the show needs).
Kosup-Kennedy showcases a warm, powerful voice on "A Way Back to Then," a solo tune about recapturing childhood wonder. Though the lyrics are too sentimental for my taste, Kosup-Kennedy does an outstanding job.
Rounding out the cast as a pianist is Jake Aebly (also the show's music director), who provides onstage accompaniment throughout on an electric piano.
Under the direction of University Theatre head David Furumoto, this cast impresses with its energy and commitment. The script doesn't do much to develop their characters, so the onus is really on them to give the main foursome life, which they certainly do.
At one point, Hunter confesses his doubts: "I worry that this is weird, self-referential, self-indulgent bullshit." He frets that "us just being us [onstage] is not enough." Quite honestly, there's some truth in that. But, at the same time, University Theatre's highly likable cast makes it work, and I'm glad to see young performers having a chance to tackle a recent musical that speaks directly to their experiences.