The core triumph of [title of show]? Showing me how many creative writing deadlines I have needlessly stressed out about because I didn’t think to do my creative writing assignment about needlessly stressing out about the creative writing assignment. Can I write this review about what it was like to write this review? My editor said no. Worth a shot.
The show’s premise, as well as its backstory, is as follows: in spring 2004, the New York Musical Theatre Festival was announced. Friends and musical theater geeks Hunter Bowen and Jeff Bell learned of the contest with only three weeks left before the deadline. The duo decided to drop everything and meet that deadline, and as they worked, soon felt that their creative process was more interesting than the actual product they were creating. Thus the pair decided to make their musical a documentation of the creative process behind its creation. (Eat your heart out, Dan Harmon.)
In Dominion Stage’s production directed by Kevin Sockwell, Chad Rabago and Gary DiNardo pull off immersive representations of the two scrappy creators Jeff and Hunter, whose candid, genuine performances as struggling writers serve as a love letter to the challenged creative. Chad Rabago gives an understated performance as Jeff, which works well in contrast to the crackling vitality of Gary DiNardo’s Hunter. Jeff is the quieter, more introverted member of the creative pair, and could easily be interpreted as the lens through which the audience views the unfolding story and/or the blank slate onto which the audience projects itself.
Rabago’s controlled, subtle performance serves this purpose quite successfully and enables DiNardo’s rollercoaster of a character as well as Hunter’s emotional journey to take narrative center stage. Sockwell’s combination of the two characters creates a joyous buddy-comedy atmosphere as well as engrossing tension when the differences in their creative priorities regarding art vs. commerce begin to sow conflict in the latter half of the show.
Rebecca Cooley playing Heidi is completely believable as a burgeoning Broadway actress. The costume choices by Costume Designers Kit Sibley and Jean Schlichting work especially well with Heidi, whose long curly hair and bright red, flowing shirt combine with Cooley’s standout singing ability to clearly communicate the character’s artistic excellence and lovable flair for the dramatic.
Danielle Comer as Susan is also excellent at conveying a wisecracking corporate drone who wishes so much she could quit her day job to make musicals. I felt that. Comer’s fluency in delivering her lines with droll, flippant wit (are “Dreamworks-face-y” or “Garfield-esque” acceptable terms?) remains throughout the show to delightful comic effect; but the character is unchanging, and I wondered what the results could have been if Sockwell and Comer had experimented with showing development in Susan over the course of the show.
In the ways their respective characters require, both Rabago and DiNardo maintain high energy throughout the show’s one-act, 90-minute runtime, and showcase excellent singing ability, which deserves special recognition given their highly exposed roles (there are only four cast members, five if you count the character “Larry,” played by Music Director Matthew Dohm, who sits at the on-stage keyboard for the duration of the show and comedically nails his five-lines-at-max, which are primarily spent being the comedic punching bag of the cast).
Lighting Designers Ken and Patti Crowley expertly illustrate the emotional tone of various scenes, using spotlights and vivid color combinations in perfect service of the show’s characteristic meta-ness. Their combination of blues and pinks and their immersive “camera” lighting effect in the show’s photoshoot scene ideally complement the show’s spirit of creativity.
Dominion Stage’s production of [title of show] shines with glittering talent and playful originality, clearly driven by an intense love for the invigorating story of these two challenged creatives fighting tough odds. Simultaneously, the script the cast and had to work with suffers from a noticeably sagging middle. The “meta” commentary in [title of show] gets old very fast; about two-thirds of the script is spent dragging out the show’s one central joke — “This is a musical about two guys writing a musical about writing a musical” — to repetitive, dull effect. Most jokes in [title of show] feel like missed opportunities — one could spend 30 seconds after each brainstorming how it could have been improved. But the Dominion Stage cast and crew pulled this production off in a way that more or less compensates for weaknesses in the script.
Furthermore, few, if any, of the songs in [title of show] are particularly memorable, though the Dominion Stage cast performs them with clear technical ability and visible gusto. The last third of the script — after the writing team submits the play and is understood to have been guessing (in real life) what might happen after they submit the play being performed in front of the author — is fascinating, and it’s when the talent at Dominion Stage and the writing of Bowen and Bell truly coalesce into a masterful performance.
Press night of this production was also its first public performance, and during the first two thirds there were audio issues: sounds of scuffling as if hair or clothing was rubbing against actors’ mics. This is of course easily fixable for future performances.
For those who enjoy meta humor and are interested in seeing ways it is done both poorly (the pre-submission part of the story) and excellently (the post-submission part), as well as charismatic, immersive performances of lovable, fascinating characters, [title of show] at Dominion Stage is a love letter to writers and artists everywhere put on by professionals who delight in the act of creation — and occasionally just hate it. And don’t we all?
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
[title of show] plays Thursdays to Saturdays through May 21, 2022, presented by Dominion Stage performing at Theatre on the Run, 3700 South Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington, VA. Purchase tickets ($30) at the door or online.
COVID Safety: All attendees must provide proof of vaccination and wear masks during the performances of [title of show]. Dominion Stage adheres to “current COVID-19 safety protocols set forth by federal, state, and county guidance.” Dominion Stage’s complete Statement on COVID-19 Protocols is here.
[title of show]
Music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen
Book by Hunter Bell
Jeff – Chad Rabago
Hunter – Gary DiNardo
Susan – Danielle Comer
Heidi – Rebecca (Becca) Cooley
Producer – Mary Beth Smith-Toomey
Director – Kevin Sockwell
Music Director – Matthew Dohm
Stage Manager – Lauren Markovich
Asst. Stage Manager – Nick Friedlander
Sound Design – David Correia
Lighting Design – Ken and Patti Crowley
Costume Design – Kit Sibley and Jean Schlichting
Hair and Makeup Design – Rebecca Harris
Props/Set Decorator – Jocelyn Steiner