Theater review: ‘[title of show]’ at Spotlighters

Nick Cherone as Jeff, Neva Sullivan as Heidi, Alex Gubler as Hunter and Natalie Stolurow as Susan. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre/machpe Photography.

At one point in his six-minute curtain call, Fuzz Roark, Executive Director and Managing/Artistic Director of Spotlighters, provides a revealing description of “[title of show]”It’s about us,” he said, “we’re a little narcissistic.” Certainly not all theater people will agree with this self-assessment, but it does provide an interesting (if stark) glimpse into the worldview of this musical, now in Spotlighters Theater can be seen.

…makes great use of Spotlighters Theater’s small skystage, and the cast is engaging, energetic and talented.

Eighteen years ago, Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell decided to take on the daunting task of creating an original musical from scratch with three weeks to go to a theater festival’s entry deadline. That’s an absurd processing time, even if you have an idea. Trouble was, Bowen and Bell didn’t — no plot, no characters, nothing — so they ended up with a gimmick instead: make the play about themselves and their process. “I’m trying to write a musical about two guys writing a musical about writing a musical,” says Jeff. He says this in the musical in which the authors are characters, along with a musical director who has very few lines (equity rules) and two so-called “supporting characters”, the actors Susan and Heidi. The approach went far beyond mere “meta”. “[title of show]”no navel gazing,”[title of show]” is the bellybutton. Assuming the gawkers are sitting in the seats? In this sense, “[title of show]’ is a riddle to identify his audience. So many backstage stories have led to great plays over the years and we theater people are a eager market. But “[title of show]” is definitely Not “42. Street”. It’s a lot more like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s film Synecdoche, New York, which came out a few years later. One is tempted to recommend this play to non-theatre makers, perhaps with the caveat “We’re not like that!”.

Luckily for Spotlighters, good material is available. Many of Bowen’s songs are very catchy and some are clever. The real saving grace here, however, lies in the direction and cast of this production. Director/choreographer Stephen Foreman makes extensive use of Spots’ tiny sky stage, and the cast is engaging, energetic and talented. As co-writer Hunter, Alex Gubler controls both short temper and fear. Neva Keroglian Sullivan (Heidi) and Natalie Stolurow (Susan) play well beyond supporting role status. Stolurov’s energy is contagious and her comic timing deadly. Sullivan is serious and completely believable. All three are very good singers. Mandee Ferrier Roberts is the musical director and also serves as musical director. She’s doing a great job. Nick Cherone is cast in the role of Jeff, the show’s composer and lyricist. He was a COVID victim during opening weekend, and his role was very bravely and well played by director Foreman on the day we attended.

“Writing should be easy,” Susan tells us, “like a monkey driving a speedboat.” Obviously that’s not the case, and if finding a point in this script is important, maybe that’s a start.

Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.

Counselor: Profanity.

“[title of show]runs at the Spotlighters Theater, 817 Saint Paul Street, Baltimore, MD 21202 through February 5, 2023. Visit online for more information and tickets. Masks are compulsory inside the building.

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