(Dane Castle and Chris Richards)
Clearly, we are deep in the era of meta-musicals, those shows that wallow in self-referential, inside-the-biz jokes. Whether it’s Uninetown, Spamalot or the ultimate example called simply [title of show], the gags built around how musicals are created are becoming a tired convention all their own.
In Gutenberg! The Musical!, now at Dobama Theatre, authors Scott Brown and Anthony King lean on the meta aspects of two musical theater nerds (picture any two cast members from the TV show Glee) who are auditioning their play before supposed Broadway producers in the audience. And the result is a frenetic, high-energy exercise that, while funny in spots, lacks the sharp wit and satirical snap one might desire—especially when compared to the similar shows mentioned above.
The two players here, Dane Castle and Chris Richards, represent Bud and Doug, two friends who have thought up this show about the inventor of the mechanical printing press. Swept away by their passion for their script, they begin acting it out on a bare stage even though, in reality, the production they imagine would call for many more bodies and some elaborate set design.
Helpfully, they keep their characters straight by wearing baseball hats with the person’s name or chief observable trait (“Old Black Narrator,” “Anti-Semite”) in big type on the front—much like the lids scuzzy Frank Rossitano wears on 30 Rock. Then, the duo presents the songs and dialog from their show, interspersed with asides from the writers to the invisible producers in the seats.
This structure keeps Bud and Doug hustling, and they generate some laughs as they lay out their “historical fiction” which, in their opinion, means “fiction that is true.” So their fictionally true Gutenberg is a wine merchant who decides to turn his wine press into a printing press when he realizes that no one in his town can read, evidently because there are no books available. In this pre-Steven King time, that means: no bibles.
Gutenberg has a love interest, appropriately named Helvitica, and a nemesis in the evil Monk who wants to keep God’s word from being disseminated to the masses. And, for gravitas, the boys throw in some foreshadowing references to the Holocaust.
All of this is played loud, brash and fast, which is about the only way it could be done. Director Marc Moritz keeps the scenes whizzing by as Bud and Doug work their way through a collection of songs that have brutally amateurish lyrics (part of the joke, you see). For instance, Helvetica croons in “I Can’t Read,” “His brain is bigger than my brain/ He can spell and count by two’s/He’s so smart and good and stuff/And all I have is boobs.”
This kind of college-level humor is funny for a while, but eventually the running jokes (every building features “a roof made of dirty thatch”) begin to get winded. And the hilarity particularly starts to decline in the second act, which feels like it has nowhere to go.
However, little of the blame can be laid at the feet of Castle and Richards, who play their various roles with every ounce of gusto they can muster. Castle, who facially looks like a cross between young Albert Brooks and (dare we say it?) Steve Gutenberg, is endearing as Bud and makes a fetching Helvetica. But his nasty Monk is never quite the wacked-out figure he should be; his Monk needs a large dollop of the Brother Theodore vibe. Richards is equally appealing as Doug and aptly heroic as Gutenberg, but his singing voice tends to grate after a while.
If you have a generous tolerance for silly, brash and stupid, Gutenberg! does not disappoint. But if you want something a tad more sophisticated, this show may not be quite your, um, type.
Gutenberg! The Musical!
Through January 2 at Dobama Theatre,
2340 Lee Road, 216-932-3396