[title of show]
Music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen and book by Hunter Bell
Above the Stag
Above the Stag Theatre (Studio Theatre)
This show isn’t a new one, it has already had London Fringe productions at the Landor and Waterloo East theatres, but it’s a niche musical that fits particularly well with the core clientele at Above the Stag since a passion for musicals seems to be part of the DNA of most gay men.
It’s a quirky piece that not only makes a musical out of making a musical (that’s nothing now; it's been going on since Garland and Rooney and probably long before) but book and lyrics are (theoretically) the verbatim conversations of those involved even if it's a phone call about watching Internet porn or asking what’s on television.
It sounds (it is) banal but it is also very engaging, this musical about a musical created at speed in three weeks for a festival competition. It is written by musician Hunter (Michael Vinsen) and writer Jeff (Jordan Fox) who pays the rent by designing web sites, with help from their actress friends Heidi (Kirby Hughes) and Susan (Natalie Williams).
Unable to think of a title when they fill in the entry form, they decide they will leave it as the form says “[title of show]”. When Hunter asks what if the judges don’t choose it, Jeff immediately answers, “that will be Act Two!” But it does get accepted, has Off-Broadway success and then goes through the struggle of rewrites before a Broadway transfer.
Though the tone is flippant, the plot comes from the real world with Heidi getting auditions but only offers of understudies and dance captain Jeff unable to get to their brainstorming rehearsals because of his day job and Susan, forever temporary typing, thinking of giving up stage aspirations.
There’s a forceful number, led by Susan, about what she calls vampires: ”any person or thought or feeling / That stands between you and your creative self-expression” but it is an ensemble piece near the end of the show that most accurately reflects the shows character:
“I’d rather be nine people’s favourite thing / Than a hundred people’s ninth favourite thing…
We can either be distinct / Or wind up merely mediocre …
And who says four chairs and a keyboard / Can’t make a musical / We’re enough with only that keyboard / We’re okay with only four chairs / We’ll be fine with only four chairs / We’ll rock hard with only four chairs”
Telephone calls in blackouts between the main scenes lose some of the impetus with which director Robert McWhir drives the rest of the show, with extra animation from William Spencer’s lively choreography, but the quartet of engaging performers pick it up straight away with live action. This isn’t a tits and teeth show but it is fuelled by bright-eyed sparkle.
I’m not one of those nine for whom this show is their favourite, there is a life’s backlog of stiff competition, but it is certainly the best musical I have seen so far this month and I did have a good time thanks to these spirited performers.