Classical theater is flush with the self-indulgent concept of a “play within a play”—”Hamlet,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and “The King and I,” to name a few. In the modern era, this device is revitalized by the emergence of “musicals within musicals”—”Something Rotten!,” “Cabaret,” “Moulin Rouge,” and even “The Producers.” In “[title of show],” writer Hunter Bell and composer Jeff Bowen take this a step further and perform the ultimate meta-musical—a show about writing and performing the show in which they are performing. Dominion Stage’s production of “[title of show]” tactfully maneuvers its way through this idea, immersing the audience in the self-awareness of the writing.
…a brilliant performance that had the audience laughing, clapping, hooting, and hollering…
“[title of show]” brings both romanticism and pragmatism to the process of writing a musical. In 2004, Bell and Bowen discovered the New York Musical Theatre Festival and decided to write an original musical in the three weeks before the deadline. Their idea was to write a show about the process of them writing the show. Flowing through thirteen scenes, broken up by seven answering machine messages and 17 (and a half) original songs, the show is delightfully straightforward in its criticism and celebration of itself, the industry, and theater in general.
We all know a pair of friends like Hunter and Jeff, played by Gary DiNardo and Chad Rabago . The duo have an almost sitcom-like chemistry, acting as two sides of the same coin. DiNardo burst off the stage (occasionally literally when asking audience members to hold props, both real and pantomimed), his effervescent energy circulating throughout the room and inciting raucous laughter from the audience. He effortlessly shifted between playful sarcasm in “Two Nobodies in New York” and personifying a ribald blank sheet of paper (almost reminiscent of an extremely blue, Microsoft Clippy) in “An Original Musical.” DiNardo’s versatility was displayed prominently throughout the production.
Acting opposite DiNardo’s ball of energy was Ribago as the refreshingly reserved and level-headed Jeff. With unassuming facial expressions and a boyish charm, Ribago’s presence grounded the production in reality and imbued the character with relatability. From birdwatching in the park to acting as the grammar police, Ribago’s unending wit and charisma (reminiscent of John Cariani of “Something Rotten!”) pervaded the show with a laudable, soft subtlety. Together, the duo’s energy was balanced and dynamic, allowing the audience to follow them through the joyous exhilaration of success and the venomous discord that can come with any creative process.
Rounding out the four-person cast were Rebecca Cooley as Heidi, the archetypal upcoming actress, and Susan, the jaded corporate cog, played by Danielle Comer. Cooley exuded longing and confidence as her siren-like voice floated over the crowd in “Monkeys and Playbills.” Cooley oozed perseverance as she bustled across the stage, tossing her hair, and sassed Ribago in music rehearsals, giving true depth of character to what could otherwise be a typical ingenue. Contrasting this youthful hope was Comer’s wistful fatigue. Her range, both in her emotions and facial expressions, in “Die Vampire Die!” lent true comedy to the semi-spoken word piece, letting her voice soar during heartfelt, rock-and-roll moments. Together, the couple’s transition from hesitant, female co-workers to best friends (like Samwise and Frodo, they mention), is invigorating to watch (not to mention, the show passes the Bechdel Test).
I can’t finish talking about the cast without celebrating the secret, fifth cast member—Matthew Dohm, the show’s music director, as Larry the pianist. Consistent with the show’s propensity for breaking the fourth wall, Dohm’s deadpan demeanor (with just a hint of a sly smirk) as an accompanist playing the accompanist solidified that this cast truly enjoys one another’s company.
The show is self-aware in its technical simplicity—four cast members, four chairs, one costume throughout the show. Through clever utilization of their craft, the technical crew elevated the show through small yet impactful choices. The set comprised of four chairs, two rolling, that added movement to a show that could have easily been stagnant. A side-stage end table was decorated with living room adornments and was spotlit by the lighting team, giving the crew time to remove props from the stage and effortlessly transition between scenes. The lighting designers, Ken and Patti Crowley, immersed the audience in the energy of the scenes, whether they were creating camera-flash lighting effects or saturating the stage in an angry, deep red. The costumes by Kit Sibley and Jean Schlichting and hair and makeup by Rebecca Harris were carefully chosen, complimenting and accentuating each character’s personality—corporate Susan in her work-appropriate, floral blouse with a blunt bob versus actress Heidi in a flouncy, red shirt and “Mamma Mia!” style curls. The team of director Kevin Sockwell and music director Matthew Dohm yielded a brilliant performance that had the audience laughing, clapping, hooting, and hollering at all the right moments.
Dominion Stage’s production of “[title of show]” encapsulates the human artistic experience—desire, self-criticism, procrastination, creative clashes, and success, no matter how you define it. As we move into the post-modern era, I’m sure there will be musicals about making musicals about making musicals about… well, you get the point. Dominion Stage’s production exemplifies what it means to live in the moment and to see something through to the end, while loving, or at least tolerating, the process along the way.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Adult language.
“[title of show]” runs Thursdays to Saturdays through May 21, 2022, presented by Dominion Stage performing at Theatre on the Run, 3700 South Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington, VA 22206. Purchase tickets online or at the door.