When we last saw Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen on stage, the two theater-obsessed lads were basking in the glow of a successful off-Broadway run in "title of show," their delightful tale of writing and putting on a musical.
Now several years later, the boys, not to mention fellow performers Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell and musical director Larry Pressgrove, have hit the big time: Broadway.
And this quintet seems right at home in the larger Lyceum Theatre, where "title of show" opened Thursday. The production remains as appealing as ever, a slyly funny yet surprisingly sweet-tempered look at following your dreams and remaining true to yourself as you suffer _ and suffer _ the pangs of artistic creation.
True, to fully appreciate the show, it does help if you have an encyclopedic knowledge of musical theater, particularly flop shows and performers who have not yet reached the star status of a Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Ethel Merman or Carol Channing. But even if you have never heard of "Got Tu Go Disco," Mary Stout or "Wild and Wonderful," you will have a good time at "title of show." The performers are that ingratiating.
Our leading men could not be more different. Bell is the saucy one with red hair; Bowen is the more contemplative partner, forever tempering Bell's exuberance. The plot, concocted by Bell, concerns two guys named Hunter and Jeff who want to write a musical about writing a musical _ and submit it to a theater festival. Just like they did in real life.
The two are assisted by good friends played by Blickenstaff, a Broadway belter of the old school who knows how to hit a note into the balcony, and Blackwell, a hip Thelma Ritter-in-training who never met a one-liner she couldn't turn into a laugh. The four make a potent theatrical combination.
"title of show" has been expanded a bit since its off-Broadway incarnation at the Vineyard Theatre. The bare-bones set _ a dingy room decorated with four nondescript chairs _ is a little bigger. And now there are projections of theater programs from theatrical turkeys during the show's cleverest number linking the titles of long-forgotten shows.
More importantly, the show has been lengthened to include the journey to Broadway and all the insecurities that can accompany such a big leap. Director Michael Berresse, no slouch himself as a performer, has directed the show with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of inventiveness. He also provided the tongue-in-cheek choreography, winking salutes to generic dance steps that have graced many a musical.
Pressgrove, on keyboard, is the show's hardworking, unsung hero. He is stationed on one side of the Lyceum stage and provides the production's entire musical accompaniment. He expertly showcases Bowen's score, a genial mix of pop-flavored songs that are closely tied to the plot.
In a way, "title of show" is a direct descendant of all those Mickey and Judy movies whose rallying cry was "Let's put on a show" _ complete with a happy ending. After all, this ingratiating crew got to Broadway.