The short answer for dedicated [tos]ers…
Yes, it holds up very well as a show. I forgot that James Gardiner and Sam Ludwig weren’t Hunter and Jeff by Part of It All. Girls had a harder time making me forget the originals, especially Jenna Sokolowski trying to be Susan. But the Signature audience wasn’t put off by (and got many) of the obscure references, and the production added two brilliant ones of its own. The Tony stuff now totally poignant. And the intimate space of the Ark Theater made up for losing the boffo Broadway ending (for those who liked it). Oh, and the phone messages have plot-driving replacements.
The long answer …
Signature Theatre is presenting the first regional production of [title of show]. The show is a musical about two writers who decide to try to write a show for a theater festival, assisted by two female friends (and a keyboard player); they present the show at the festival and we follow subsequent developments until it lands on Broadway.*
The main gimmick of this show when it was done in New York is that the writers, Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen, and the friends, Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell all portrayed themselves, and the plot lines followed the actual genesis of the show. Moreover, the cast aggressively marketed the show through a series of brilliant YouTube posts, creating the fan-base of “[tos]ers” (per the above).** In addition to being wildly self-referential, the piece played with its own self-consciousness, questioning and exploiting theatrical conventions, and piling on the insider theatrical references. Plus it had fiendishly clever dialogue and really snappy songs.
The Signature version shows that [title of show] is sustainable on the merits of its book and songs, that a non-New York audience can deal with the obscure references (and Signature’s production adds two brilliant ones of its own), and that other performers can make the characters work.
One very smart thing that this production does is cast actors who feel a decade younger than their previous counterparts, which highlights the feeling of youthful idealism in the play. James Gardiner and Sam Ludwig were totally convincing as Hunter and Jeff. Erin Driscoll was totally winning as Heidi, if perhaps a shade unruffled and she handled the vocal demands of the show with charm and ease (and I’m awe-struck that she obviously rehearsed this show while performing as Johanna in Sweeney). The performer I had the hardest time forgetting was Susan Blackwell; Jenna Sokolowski was lovely but the eccentricity of the character occasionally felt somewhat forced. Gabriele Mangiante did a great job of both portraying the character of the keyboardist Larry, and providing superb, supportive music direction.
The show is truly an ensemble piece and the cast and director Matthew Gardiner worked non-stop to create a seamless, riveting theatrical experience. Gardiner has a brilliant sense of when to keep the staging simple and let the story tell itself, while coming up with some truly inventive staging for numbers like Monkeys and Playbills. The creative team were obviously on the same page for the look and feel of the piece.
I found myself having a moment of panic when I noticed that the performers weren’t miked, especially given that a lyric in the show is “if they like us, will they mike us?.” But the cast did a superb job in projection, and thankfully that lyric and all the other clever ones in the show came through loud and clear. And that proved a reminder of the direct audience experience Signature’s [title of show] provides. After all, in the intimate confines of The Ark, the worst seat in the house gives a closer, more immediate view than fifth-row center of a Broadway Theater.
*I rather suspect that the second show ever written was about people trying to break into the just-formed show business. **I tried to find an excuse to use brackets in that sentence, too, but I just couldn’t justify it.