Ever been at a party and thought I just don’t belong here? Have you looked out amongst the crowd of partygoers and thought I’m glad they’re having fun with their inside jokes but, I’m uncomfortable and just not drinking the same Kool-Aid? Well, that’s kind of what Theatreworks’ Title of Show felt like for me.
There I was, dressed up for this party and ready to have a theatrical conversation but, instead, I felt like I was stuck talking to an emotionally damaged and slightly intoxicated party guest most of the night. Sure, there were moments of what you’d call entertainment but, mostly it was just hard to decipher, bizarre, repetitive and full of narcissistic excuses. And so, I sat listening politely, biding my time until I could find an opportunity to discreetly excuse myself. That proved difficult at an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission (though there were a few folks that took advantage of a scene change blackout and made their escape.)
This show is centered around two guys writing a musical and submitting it to a festival. A musical about the gimmicks, formulas and struggles of writing a musical is a fun and satirical concept with lots of potential but, the show inside a show device got tired, fast. Comedy is repetition yes, but, the novelty of “is this in the show right now” and “we are singing about the opening song” wore off in the first twenty minutes. A less civilized crowd might have indicated the dead horse stage left and requested a beating.
This play just tried too hard and it came off forced and flat in many places (not unlike some of my past dates.) For example, obscure theatrical references are fine, and spelling them out or giving us visual aids is even fine but, then reiterating that they’re obscure and discussing if they should be used in the show because no one will get them, and if that will turn off the audience, which it was, just wasn’t funny.
Now, the show was not void of laughs. The earnest correction of grammar by one of the characters was endearing and there was a vomit metaphor that I think everyone in the theatre laughed at. The audience got to show some real appreciation after a funny and heartfelt Die, Vampire, Die and the applause was never longer and more sincere than after Heidi’s song A Way Back to Then. These songs showed the obvious talent of the cast, and I think we all wished there had been more of that.
Amusingly enough, some of the best moments were unscripted. A botched joke delivery involving a middle finger, and the inability of an actor on stage to keep a straight face, brought a much-needed flash of real spontaneity to the stage. In contrast to these real moments, it made it even more apparent that although acted well, the synthesized “real time” didn’t feel real most of the time.
Perhaps the biggest joy for me last night was a moment that had nothing to do with the show at all. Seeing William (Billy) Liberatore on stage as the keyboardist Larry sent me “back to then” with a brief scene of him walking the character of Susan through her notes in a harmony. Just like that, I was reminded that Billy, 26 years ago, helped me as a 10-year-old on stage at the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre. I missed the entrance of my solo you see, and as I frantically stared down in the pit, there was Billy’s smiling face. He reassuringly mouthed “it’s okay,” calmly vamped until I was composed and brought me back into the song, nodding approval as I regained my path. I went on to do at least a half a dozen more musicals before I realized, I was not cut out for the whole singing thing.
The upshot? For the New York crowd, or the Broadway diehards, or the actors struggling to make it, I’m sure they will feel like they are doing body shots right alongside the characters in this musical “party,” but 3 out of 5 jewels in the tiara from the princess is all I can award Title of Show. Not my favorite thing and not my 9th favorite thing, but like being an awkward party guest, there’s value in knowing at least you got out of the house and someone had fun even if it wasn’t you. Title of Show plays through June 26th at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts.