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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Gutenberg’ makes its point loudly, if not so clear


Gutenberg! The Musical! / Theater Barn / New Lebanon

SHAUN RICE AND DOMINICK VARNEY explode on to the stage with enough hydrogen to launch a rocket. (Hey guys. The Theater Barn is only a 136-seat theater, not Yankee Stadium; but we get your point.) These characters (new authors) can’t hide their desperate enthusiasm; and/or, they rely on the old new-actors’ maxim, “When you don’t trust your material, gesture a lot and speak louder.”

Rice and Varney play composer Bud and book-writer Doug, authors of Gutenberg! The Musical! Hoping to get a Broadway production, they are pitching their creation to producers. The two of them play all the parts. We (the audience) play tired, cynical producers, who need to be kept awake.

The backers’ audition is the entire evening. The boys use—and assault–every imaginable show-biz cliché, from chorus-line kicks to rock-style bad rhymes and traditional song-genres (“Charm song,” etc.).

When the two author-actors employ dozens of labeled hats to designate multiple characters, some people may pass by the money-saving excuse and recall the NYC previews of Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.” After “Merrily” audiences complained that they couldn’t keep the characters straight, someone decided to put each character’s name on the back of his costume.

The “Gutenberg” authors tell us how difficult it is to write a good second act for a musical, so they have became deliberately contrarian. After a rather yucky first act, their second act gets better and fresher—in both senses of that word.

The deliberately silly plot is surprisingly engaging. One of my favorite moments involves a small, clearly labeled rat surrounded by appropriate feces.

Quick, delicious references to dumb Bible-readers and the Holocaust test the limits of satire with little damage done.

The absence of the musical director’s bio in the Theater Barn’s program seemed odd, until it occurred to me that, within the play-within-a-play conceit (the backers’ audition), the musical director may be unwilling to be associated with this questionable project. He may prefer anonymity. Or maybe authors Bud and Doug forgot to list him.

A show like this invites the observing brain to concoct extravagant, unlikely connections.

The Theater Barn does insist that the musician’s real name (Mason Griffin) appear on the front of their program. But Griffin’s “orchestra” is onstage, so we producers get to witness his boredom and his occasional lively effort to squeeze some musical oomph out of an electric piano. (Authors of new musicals who hold minimum-wage day jobs can seldom afford a real piano.)

Pacing by director Allen Phelps is effectively tight.

Shaun Rice has a better singing voice than he really needs for this role (we producers appreciate), and his farcical exaggerations are linked to some crazy actor-reality. However, the show would work much better if Varney would let go of the mugging and sign up for charm school.

These days, there seems to be quite a lot of musical theater trying to satirize itself. “Urinetown” is a particularly unpleasant example. “Gutenberg” is better. The genre can be cool and fun, and/or it may simply expose authors’ inability to wrestle with warm.

Reserve seats for “Gutenberg! The Musical!” by Anthony King and Scott Brown at 518 794-8989. It runs through August 3.



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