By Karen Isaacs
A 50-ish comedy writer, old by TV standards, returns to Hollywood to resurrect his career. He had been fired due to anger issues, particularly towards the woman executive, and had found writing “serious” plays not financially viable. So he’s back – groveling or almost groveling to the same executive– to get a job writing a TV sitcom, in an industry that views him as a dinosaur.
That’s the set-up for the world premiere musical, I Hate Musicals – the Musical, now at Ivoryton Playhouse through Oct. 15.
But though that is the set-up for the show, the show is really about what happens when the writer, Alvin, gets trapped in concrete in the executive’s office after a major earthquake. His life doesn’t quite flash before his eyes, but he does encounter a number of hallucinations or ghosts from his past including both his “fictional” father and his real father, Jesus Christ and Freud.
It’s written by Mike Reiss, who wrote scripts for The Simpsons for 21 years, collecting four Emmys and a Peabody Award. Recently he has turned to playwriting – presumably not because he needs the money. His comedies – which are somewhat reminiscent of Neil Simon’s early works — include I’m Connecticut which premiere at the Connecticut Repertory Theater and then at Ivoryton, as well Comedy Is Hard, which also was produced at Ivoryton. In a program note, Reiss says the play was originally a non-musical but since no producer would invest the money in a full-scale production; he decided that the best chance was to turn it into a musical.
I Hate Musicals – the Musical is a show that puzzled me. It is part burlesque of many musicals, part satire of Hollywood, television and writing, and occasionally part college show.
Yes, there are some very clever and funny things. At one point Alvin is visited by his father (“Professor”), a pompous man who is a professor of theatrical history at Yale. Professor is constantly critical and cold. But later we meet Alvin’s “real father” who is warm and supportive. When “Professor” questions why he was created, Alvin replies “for dramatic tension.”
He’s also included some funny comments about television’s ability to take a creative idea and convert it to a “knock off” of many shows.
But for every funny and insightful comment there are those that are much less sophisticated. Much of that is in the music. While Walter Murphy composed most of the original music (there’s not that much), most of the actual music in the show – which isn’t listed in the program – are snippets of well-known songs with parody lyrics. Thus we get “I Hate Hollywood” to the tune of “Hooray for Hollywood,” “I Hate LA” to “YMCA,”Garfinkle” to “Goldfinger.” You get the picture.
Most of the cast plays multiple roles. They handle them mostly successfully, particularly since some of the characters are very broadly written. Will Clark plays both “real dad” and Jesus – both with awful wigs. Amanda Huxtable plays all the women – the executive, Alvin’s ex-wife, Mary (yes, the mother of Jesus) and Mom. She manages to inhabit all of them successfully Ryan Knowles is excellent as the Professor. Sam Given plays both a security guard – who keeps finding Alvin stuck in the rubble but letting him know that other, more important people, must be rescued first, as well as Sigmund Freud.
Bruce Connelly has a field day playing Alvin’s agent, Lee, who Alvin keeps calling. Lee is in Hawaii on vacation and keeps forgetting who Alvin is and to call 9-11 so that someone will rescue him.
Stephen Wallem is excellent as Alvin, delivering the lines with assurance and getting all the humor out of them. You actually are convinced he is that beleaguered writer.
I don’t know whether to blame the script or the director (James Valletti) for the numerous extremely flamboyant gay stereotypes that might be funny in small doses but becomes borderline objectionable. A little of that goes a long way.
Special praise to Daniel Nischan as the scenic designer, Marcus Abbott (lighting designer) and Tate R. Burmeister (sound designer). They create a realistic earth quake – actually two; you almost feel the ground shake.
If you really love The Simpsons and that type of humor, you will find I Hate Musicals – the Musical great fun. Even if that is not your favorite of humor, you will find some very funny moments.
It’s at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street, Ivoryton through Sunday, Oct.15. Call 860-767-7318 or visit Ivoryton Playhouse