[title of review]

Review: Rarely Done Productions puts on [title of show], a musical about writing a musical, at Syracuse's Jazz Central.

In the third song of [title of show], Hunter, dressed as a sandwich board advertisement that reads “An Original Musical,” gives Jeff a satirical crash course in how to put on a Broadway-worthy production. He promotes an over-the-top set, a huge cast and a full symphony orchestra. And when Jeff says he wants to use just four chairs, four cast members and a keyboard, Hunter replies that Jeff needs at least “a turntable or a freakin’ electric blimp or something.” 

But this show doesn’t need a “freakin’ electric blimp.” It’s about two gay guys trying to write a musical about two gay guys trying to write a musical. It’s about how we speak in conversations with friends. And more than that, it’s about being confident enough to put yourself and your words on stage.

And that’s what makes [title of show] an ironic, yet perfect fit for Rarely Done Productions. The show is niche and unconventional, but it was big enough to make it to Broadway. It speaks to issues all actors, composers and writers face, but you don’t have to be a Broadway junkie to get it (although it can help when the characters start to name-drop Broadway legends and obscure flops). And the no-frills intimacy of Jazz Central’s 63-seat theater on East Washington Street lets the talent of director Dan Tursi and the actors do the work.

[title of show] was conceived in just three weeks by Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell for the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival. The musical chronicles the pair’s actual creative process, from conception (toss the “Wonder Woman” DVDs and Internet porn, let’s write a musical!) to its off-Broadway debut at the Vineyard Theatre, to its eventual run on Broadway in 2008. Heidi and Susan finish out the ensemble as the duo’s wacky yet serious “lady friends” who struggle to balance their day-jobs with Hunter and Jeff’s growing artistic vision.

[Title of Show]

Shawn Forster and Dana Sovocool met 12 years ago playing Rump and Doody in Grease!, and have channeled that same energy and closeness into portraying Hunter and Jeff, respectively, in Rarely Done’s production of [title of show]. Forster said it was a challenge playing a real person and “finding our relationship inside [Hunter and Jeff’s] relationship.” They found it. In their witty brainstorming sessions and the arguments that surface as the show nears its Broadway break, it seems as if Forster and Sovocool are conjuring their lines on the spot.

Heidi and Susan get a whole song about being “Secondary Characters,” which begs the question: are they, really? Not as Aubry Panek (Heidi) and Julia Berger (Susan) play them. They convey the natural jealousy between any two women in the hilarious duet, “What Kind of Girl is She?” At the end, their voices sound like one as they belt in unison, “She might try to steal my husband!”

Berger said all the actors are so much like their characters, even Susan’s “weird facial expressions” and self-doubt weren’t off the mark. She lets the audience glimpse Susan’s insecurities in the first semi-serious number of the show, “Die Vampire, Die!” At the opening reception, Panek said she tried make it in New York City and had played understudies just like Heidi, so connecting to Heidi’s solo, “A Way Back to Then,” was easy. 

Alright, so [title of show] might seem a little self-indulgent. It’s about two main characters who star as themselves. And this cast said they feel almost like they’re playing themselves. But it works because it’s self-aware. The characters draw attention to the meta-theater of the spectacle. Just as one scene in the first act starts to drag, Hunter says, “I think this scene is getting too long and maybe we should end it.” Cue blackout. In another scene, a character yells, “Key change!” just in time for a new verse.

Larry (musical director Jon Balcourt), the keyboardist who styles Jeff’s tinkling “Cats” ringtone and corrects Susan’s pitch, only gets to say a couple lines and is excluded from every marketing promo, is, nonetheless, [title of show]’s musical bedrock. Balcourt never misses a cue or a nuance; forget turntables, this musical doesn’t need more than a keyboard.

No cast member in this production stands out as “the strongest” singer or actor, which makes Rarely Done’s [title of show] a true ensemble collaboration. But it’s time to let a couple pygmy vampires into this review before Susan kills them. Sovocool flubbed the choreography in a couple scenes, and Forster strained at what should have been a strong ending note in both “Two Nobodies in New York” and “Part of It All.” The montage scenes of [title of show] in its waiting and developing stages between off-Broadway and Broadway needed to pick up the pace.

But die, vampires, die! Who cares about a few mistakes? This is a musical about the silliness of everyday life. It’s about creating art and building confidence and keeping friendships. “You need to stay in the moment or you lose it all,” Sovocool said about the challenge of playing a character that never gets to leave the stage. Rarely Done Productions’ [title of show] keeps the vampires at bay and keeps us in the moment..

Go see the show

What: [title of show] by Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, produced by Rarely Done Productions, Inc.

Where: Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St.

When: 8 p.m., now through Oct. 16 

Tickets: $20 general admission

Photo courtesy of Robb Sharpe/Rarely Done Productions

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