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TheatreWorks' 'Musical of Musicals' is a Hit of Hits

By Jaime Ferris, The Housatonic Times


It's a rare theatrical experience to see not one, but five stories unfold on stage in one production, and rarer still for those stories to develop musically. But "The Musical of Musicals—The Musical!" creators Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart have done just that. Rather than take audiences through one long, drawn out tale with the same old characters, their inventive and hilarious tribute to musical theater offers audiences five stories in one.

They take perhaps the hoariest plot in the book—"You must pay the rent!" "I can't pay the rent!"—and run it through the songbooks of five Broadway stylists—Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Kander and Ebb.

Under the inspired direction of Bradford Blake at TheatreWorks New Milford, and a talented quartet of actors creating the stock characters in each mini-musical, "The Musical of Musicals—The Musical!" is a fast-paced, zany tribute sure to send the true theater geeks—and even the theatrical novice—into a musical frenzy sure to cure the holiday blues.

The quintet of theatrical parodies kicks off with "Corn!" featuring send- ups of and references to "The King and I," "The Sound of Music," "Carousel," 'Oklahoma!" and "South Pacific." Set in Kansas in August, June finds herself torn between her shy beau, Big Willy, and her landlord, Jidder, who promises to tear up her lease if she agrees to marry him. Mother Abby's advice: follow your dreams—which she does, as does Big Willy, in a hilarious "Dream Ballet."

Next comes a heaping helping of Steven Sondheim with "A Little Complex," which wittily blends Mr. Sondheim's "Into the Woods," "Company," "Follies" and "Sweeney Todd" to murderous effect. Yet again, poor June can't pay her rent and must face her evil landlord, depicted here as a tortured artist who plots to slash his tenants' throats—the bird-obsessed June, thoughtful composer Billy and pessimistic alcoholic Abby—because they do not appreciate his art.

Perhaps you would prefer the larger-than-life Jerry Herman-fashioned "Dear Abby," a flashy, flamboyant take of a classic tale in which Manhattan socialite Auntie Abby, adored by her neighbors, doles out advice to solve everyone's problems; or "Aspects of Junita" in the style of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, with hilarious hints of "Evita" "Phantom of the Opera" and, yes, even "Cats." Here, aspiring superstar Junita hopes stardom will get her out of paying the rent, much to the chagrin of fading diva Abigail von Schtarr. Making it all the more dramatic, Junita and her boyfriend Bill's lack communication—they literally cannot talk—leads her to fall under Phantom Jitter's spell.

Of course, a musical tribute wouldn't be complete without a little Kander and Ebb through "Speakeasy," in which "Cabaret" and "Chicago" are honored, complete with faux Fosse choreography. Here, Fräulein Abby advises Juny to turn to prostitution to pay her rent while her boyfriend, Villy, remains happily in jail.

This wickedly clever comic satire—perfect fare for TheatreWorks New Milford—leaves no cliché un-lampooned, no musical unspoofed—and that's what makes it so much fun. While it will surely have musical theater aficionados rolling in the aisles, you don't have to know musicals inside and out to get the humor of this clever piece. Even if you know just something about the modern musical, you're off to an uproarious start.

"The Musical of Musicals—The Musical!" wouldn't hit the mirthful notes it does without a stellar cast composed of Tom Denihan, Jonathan Jacobson, Jessica Smith and Priscilla Squiers. The production is an ensemble piece dependent on brilliant chemistry—which this company has in spades—but each has his or her own moment in the spotlight.

Mr. Denihan, for example, (Big Willy, Billy, William, Bill and Vily), is at his best as Big Willy, with his aw-shucks charm. No one else could deliver a line about a future child name Little Willy quite like he does.

Ms. Smith (June, Jeune, Junie Faye, Junita and Juny) commands the spotlight as the title character in the mini-pop opera "Aspects of Junita," in which she hopes to become a true superstar, despite a lack of talent, so she can get out of paying her rent to the mysterious Sir Phantom Jitter. Her performance is simply smashing, as is the climax in this witty spin of the story.

While Mr. Jacobson (Jidder, Jitter, Mr. Jitters, Sir Phantom Jitter and Jütter) has several memorable turns as the evil landlord, he is most engaging as Jütter, a hilarious lampooning of the Emcee in "Cabaret" made famous by Joel Grey. This is the most interesting 1930s-era Chicago speakeasy, indeed, as Jütter and the cast sing about how depressing life is and dance around in colorful corsets.

Likewise, Ms. Squiers (Mother Abby, Abby, Auntie Abby, Abigail von Schtarr and Fraulein Abby) is at the top of her game—and at the top of the stairs—in the aptly titled "Dear Abby," a humorous parody of, among other productions "Mame" and "Hello, Dolly!" in which Auntie Abby, an unconventional Manhattan socialite, is so good at solving people's problems that she is able to match make her nephew and her nerdy friend, while convincing the landlord to embrace his true self. And she does it all brilliantly through song and dance.

And, last, but certainly not least, is Mr. Blake, our narrator and accompanist throughout the production, who shines behind the piano, from his first introduction in "Corn!" to becoming a flamboyant Jerry Herman in "Dear Abby," to his wonderful turn as part of the ensemble in the show's final number, "Done," a parody of "One" from "A Chorus Line." He must also be commended for his wonderful choreography and set design, which allows the puns and projections behind the actors to set the stage for each musical beautifully.

"The Musical of Musicals—The Musical!" is one of those zany theatrical treats that lifts the spirits as only an old-fashioned musical could—puns, spoofs and all. This is mirthful musical mockery at its best.

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