“The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!)” Skewers Broadway Classics

REVIEW BY CARY GINELL

On Saturday night, we journeyed outside of our usual geographical sphere to the West Valley Playhouse in Canoga Park to see several familiar Ventura County faces perform in a wacky show called The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!). Writers Joanne Bogart and Eric Rockwell created the show, which played Off-Broadway for a reasonable 194 performances during 2003 and 2004. The show is a satire of the styles of Broadway composers Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, and Andrew Lloyd Webber plus the teams of Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein and John Kander & Fred Ebb. The result is a clever, laugh-out-loud mash-up of these writers’ most famous and enduring works.

The five segments are linked together by the plot thread, “I can’t pay the rent.” A cast of four: Abby (Farley Cadena), Jitter (David Colville), Willy (Michael German), and June (Aine’ Graham), plus a narrator (Daniel Krause) perform in all the segments, with their respective character names varying for each. The concept is similar to that of Forbidden Broadway, except that in this show, all the songs are original numbers that are slyly twisted according to the composers’ creative signatures. Whereas Forbidden Broadway features song parodies, Bogard and Rockwell’s new songs are right on the mark, utilizing all the hallmarks that the composers were known for, including Hammerstein’s gossamery lyrics, Sondheim’s quirky, off-beat melodies, and Herman’s patriotic bluster.

The first segment, which focuses on the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein, is titled “Corn!” It opens, a la Oklahoma!, with German as lanky cowboy Big Willy singing a lilting waltz, “Oh, What Beautiful Corn” while Cadena, in the Aunt Eller role, husks corn shucks nearby. It doesn’t take long, however, for elements of other R&H musicals to creep into the story and the songs. References whiz by like they came from out of a machine gun so one has to be alert in order to catch them all: “etcetera, etcetera, etcetera” from The King and I, the inspirational “Follow Your Dream” (“Climb Ev’ry Mountain”) from The Sound of Music, and the soliloquy from Carousel (“Sowillyquey”) are but a few. The love song, “I Don’t Love You,” sung with overstated passion by German and Graham (as June), makes fun of the coy relationships between the main characters that are often featured in R&H musicals. And, of course, there’s an uproarious dream ballet.

After a quick costume change, the cast shifts to the cleverly titled Sondheim satire, “A Little Complex,” which features ample quantities of “irony, ambiguity, and dissonance,” such as “Welcome to the Woods,” which describes a typical Sondheim cast of “unlikable people whose lives are all hollow.” In this segment, Colville takes on the persona of Jitter, a demented painter/landlord (Sweeney Todd) of the Woods apartment complex. References to Pacific OverturesA Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and other Sondheim shows get slipped into the dialog, with Colville muttering “Que Sera, Que Seurat” at one point and the narrator blithely announcing “Warily, they stroll along” to groans from the audience.

The puns gets better. Or worse. “Dear Abby!” satirizes Jerry Herman’s preoccupation with glamorous, be-feathered Manhattan matrons grandly descending staircases (Hello, Dolly!, Mame). Cadena makes a number of quick changes from one sparkling gown/headdress ensemble to the next while singing “I can’t sing or dance, but I’m the star of the show!” For this segment choreographer Neisha Folkes incorporates every dancing cliche in the book, which concludes with Colville emerging in drag to romp through a take-off on La Cage Aux Folles.

The Musical of Musicals is better when its creators are taking barbed shots at their targets, rather than paying reverential tribute, as they do in the R&H, Sondheim, and Herman segments. The Andrew Lloyd Webber satire, “Aspects of Junita,” is probably the most vicious of all. The logo projected onto the screen brings more laughs than most of the songs: the familiar image of the face of Evita, wearing a mask (a la Phantom of the Opera) and cats’ whiskers (Cats). While there is more homage paid in the previous three, this segment takes dead aim at Lloyd Webber’s formulaic, derivative, and repetitive scores. After the Prologue, the cast sings “I’ve heard that song before / I can’t stand it anymore,” a melody that recurs throughout the segment. This time, Colville is the Phantom to Graham’s Evita-esque Junita. Cadena emerges as Abigail Von Schtarr (Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard) to belt the hilarious “Over the Top,” perfectly encapsulating Lloyd Webber’s often overwrought “hit” melodies. 

The final segment, “Speakeasy,” takes on the decadent works of Kander & Ebb, with the cast decked out in fishnet stockings and garters, while Colville, rouged up as the outrageous Jütter (the Emcee from Cabaret) takes center stage. Bob Fosse’s stylishly sexy, monochromatic choreography played central roles in K&E shows like Cabaret and Chicago so there is plenty of angular slinking and provocative poses in skimpy black outfits and top hats to go along with the suggestive songs. “Just Don’t Pay” hilariously satirizes “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago, where each character complains about the landlord instead of describing a murder. The entire production finishes with – what else? – synchronized Rockettes kicks by the cast, who are properly wearing gold top hats and declaring the show “Done” (“One” from A Chorus Line). Although not a Kander & Ebb product, the song provides a fitting conclusion to the evening’s shenanigans.

The Musical of Musicals is a tour de farce for gifted clowns like Cadena and Colville, who often strain at the bit in conventional musicals. Both get the chance to let loose and they are brilliant in their scene-chewing, over-the-top roles, but in this show, they get to play them all. “I’m so excited,” Cadena gushed afterwards. “I get to play all my heroes: Carol Channing, Elaine Stritch, everybody – all in one show!” The portly Colville has no qualms about getting dressed up in bright red drag or tight-fitting black leotards, bellowing out lines with his bull moose of a voice. The more preposterous the get-up, the more Colville enjoys himself. He even gets around gracefully on roller skates (yes, roller skates) with the rest of the cast.

It’s hard to keep up with these two lunatics, but German and Graham manage to do so in their slightly less outlandish parts. The versatile Graham shows her versatility, going from the wispy farm girl June in “Corn!” to the sexy, high-kicking Juny in “Speakeasy.” German sings beautifully and plays the leading man roles to Graham’s ingenues while Krause rounds out the cast as the narrator, also joining in on the nutty goings-on.

Patricia Hannifan is the outstanding on stage pianist. The production is directed by Branda Lock while the terrific costumes were created by Don Nelson. The Musical of Musicals is great for regular theater-goers who are familiar with the major attributes and styles of the composers targeted in the production. Anyone else might not get all the references, so if you think you can tell the difference, by all means take a trip to Canoga Park and see this zany laugh-fest. And bring a scorecard. It might come in handy.

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The Musical of Musicals: The Musical! plays through August 30 at the West Valley Playhouse, 7242 Owensmouth Avenue in Canoga Park. For tickets, visit their website at www.wvplayhouse.com.

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