Non-stop laughs in the play-within-a-play parody ‘Gutenberg! The Musical!’ at Broadway’s James Earl Jones Theatre

For the first time since 2011, when they starred together in the original Broadway cast of The Book of Mormon, long-time friends and stellar scene partners Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells have reunited for the Broadway premiere of Gutenberg! The Musical!, a two-man musical spoof that made its stage debut in 2005. Written by Scott Brown and Anthony King (book, music, and lyrics) and directed by Alex Timbers (all of whom also gave us the sensational Broadway production of Beetlejuice), the show is presented in the format of a play-within-a-play, as Bud Davenport (Gad) and Doug Simon (Rannells), best friends and aspiring writers from Nutley, NJ (there’s no lack of Jersey jokes here), enthusiastically perform all the roles, both male and female, and sing all the songs in their new musical about Johannes Gutenberg – the 15th-century German inventor of the printing press – at a backers’ audition, in the hopes of finding a producer to take the misguided historical fiction to Broadway and fulfill their dreams.

Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The perfectly paired stars play off each other with consummate comic timing and keep the laughs coming, in an over-the-top hilarious show filled with insider references to the theater, uproarious moves that are self-consciously theatrical (movement direction by Nancy Renee Braun), terrific vocals on amateurishly risible rhythms and laughable lyrics (intentionally so on the part of Brown and King), an absurdly fabricated biography (after Googling Gutenberg and seeing that “detailed records of his life and work are scant,” they decide to make it up), and a variety of accents that have absolutely nothing to do with Germany or the era.

They use low-budget makeshift props – the guys’ limited funds is one of the running jokes in the show – including spray cans for fog effects, flashlights for a spotlight, a toy cat, cardboard boxes labeled “wine press” and “printing press” and changing carboard signs on the upstage exit door to set the locales, and identical caps, each imprinted with the name of a character, which they flawlessly stack, switch, and puppeteer to identify who they’re playing at any given time (one of whom is Gutenberg’s invented love interest Helvetica, humorously named for the type font; others are a young anti-Semitic flower girl and an evil monk, who wants the population to remain illiterate and stabs people with pencils), without missing a beat.

Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

In between the acts, the clueless creators directly address the audience – at first nervously, then excitedly, and ultimately with sincere emotion – alternating back and forth with introductions to the situations of the scenes, unnecessary and faulty definitions of the theatrical terms they use (e.g., historical fiction – “It’s fiction . . . that’s true”), entirely TMI about themselves, to the point of going off-script to share secrets they’ve never told anyone (and no one would really want to hear), and closing with an elicited singalong with the house and a spectacular surprise ending (and, at the performance I attended, a very special guest appearance by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which had everyone thunderously applauding and screaming).

Gad and Rannells, who are obviously having as much fun with each other as the audience is watching them, deliver it all with their signature mastery, close camaraderie, and comedic genius, backed by Mike Dobson on percussion, Amanda Morton on keyboard, and music director and conductor Marco Pagua on piano (who also provides two sidesplitting in-character curtain speeches), representing the six-piece NJ band Bud and Doug hired (but could only afford to pay three).

Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

In keeping with the farcical plot point of a low-cost presentation, Scott Pask’s scenic design consists of an overcrowded stage – a one-day rental – loaded with stacks of piled-up props from other shows, costumes by Emily Rebholz and hair by Tommy Kurzman that are the men’s idea of professional, with a more traditional jacket and tie for Bud and a smart casual look for Doug (indicative of their personalities), overly active and colorful lighting by Jeff Croiter that changes wildly with the scenes, and sound by M.L. Dogg and Cody Spencer that includes one of the most hysterical and economic ways to recreate the crackling of a fire (no spoiler here, you’ll have to see it for yourself).

Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The incessantly witty lines, songs, sight and sound gags in Gutenberg! are too numerous to mention; I literally never stopped laughing through the entire show (to the point that my eye make-up was running down my face). If you’re in the mood for some sparklingly silly entertainment performed by two supreme masters of musical comedy, do not miss this zany funfest, on Broadway for a limited engagement through January.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including an intermission.

Gutenberg! The Musical! plays through Sunday, January 28, 2024, at the James Earl Jones Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $58-318, including fees), call (212) 239-6200, or go online.


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