“Last night a tranny stole my shrimp,” says Hunter in a phone call to his friend Jeff.
The line, which must be the most memorable opener for a musical — ever — begins [title of show].
And it sets the casually irreverent tone for composer Jeff Bowen and scriptwriter Hunter Bell’s hilarious love letter to musical theatre, which opened on Thursday at The Matchbox in Red Deer.
This season-closing Ignition Theatre production is literally a musical about the process of two friends writing an original musical together.
Yes, it’s got in-jokes and many New York references, but the show is so down to earth and funny, you don’t need to be a Broadway geek to get a kick out of it.
Before the two main characters, who depict the real-life playwrights, get around to talking about how they have only three weeks to write a musical before a competition deadline, Jeff responds to Hunter’s walk-by-shrimp-stealing incident with: “Well, I guess (transvestites) need their protein, too.”
Soon the two are writing about everything that happens to them on the way to completing a musical. This allows Hunter and Jeff to perform catchy tunes about writers’ doldrums, big themes, possibly winning a Tony, and about whether they must cast Ryan Seacrest to get anyone to see their production.
The play-within-a-play angle is often used to good effect.
For instance, as soon as one character says a scene feels too long, the stage lights immediately go off.
At one point Hunter (brilliantly played by Dustin Clark), comes out dressed as a giant yellow note pad, who talks, inexplicably, like a foul-mouthed black man about how to make a musical succeed.
When Jeff, amiably depicted by Spenser Pasman, asks why he’s speaking like an African American, the blank pad responds with “I can be anything you like.”
Enter Heidi (Chantel Hutchison) and Susan (Mallory Minerson), actress friends of the playwrights’, who agree to co-star in [title of show] as — surprise, surprise, themselves. Heidi even sings about it, accompanied by musical director/pianist Jane Mueller.
The two women also do an uproarious duet about that most primal — and embarrassing — competition/insecurity thing that happens when two women who don’t know each other very well start scoping each other out.
Minerson is bang-on as Susan, a brassy dame who put her stage dreams on hold to become “a corporate whore” in an office job that she detests.
Hutchison uses her big, booming voice to shake the rafters — as well as tug at heartstrings — when Heidi sings an affecting tune about trying to rediscover childhood wonder.
But most songs in this production are funny rather than profound, including Hunter and Jeff crooning “all our gay skills fill playbills . . .” and Susan singing Die Vampire about quashing insecurities.
About the only thing that’s out of bounds in this kind of production is to let things slow down.
Unfortunately, the action does drag when the tone abruptly becomes more serious about two-thirds of the way through. Hunter, Jeff, Susan and Heidi get into a funk about their off-Broadway play possibly not making it to Broadway.
But it doesn’t take long for the four to break into song again (the cute Awkward Photo Shoot) and all is right with their world.
Matt Grue shows his considerably directing chops with some clever staging. The entire set of [title of show] consists of four colourful chairs, and Grue still manages to make the show visually interesting — which is saying something.
He also gets the cast to depict the chumminess needed for a play about four friends who are playing themselves.
[title of show] is the last production at the soon-to-close The Matchbox. In the fall, Ignition Theatre moves to two Central Alberta Theatre venues, but will continue to offer thoughtful, quirky and sometimes controversial productions.
It’s a crucial time for the company, so here’s hoping the community supports Grue and his talented pool of young actors to make sure there continues to be an array of professional theatre worth watching in Red Deer.