A 'Musical' of Grand Allusions

By Celia Wren
Monday, September 7, 2009

The Arctic's ice is melting. The U.S. Postal Service is losing money. Highway rest stops have shuttered across Virginia. But the world isn't entirely going to hell in a handbasket: MetroStage has revived "The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!)," the gleeful spoof it staged in 2007 -- and the 2009 production brims with the same comic brio that made its predecessor roll merrily along.

Inspired director Larry Kaye has returned to the show, as have actors Janine Gulisano-Sunday, Donna Migliaccio and Bobby Smith. Matthew A. Anderson, recently seen in Theater J's "The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall," has joined the cast, and the new music director and accompanist, Doug Lawler, is a jaunty presence at the onstage piano. Designer Allison Campbell has re-created her set, with its glimpse-of-backstage ladders and ghost light and its two-dimensional "Phantom"-style chandelier.

The performers appear to be having a blast -- and who can wonder? "Musical of Musicals" is a truffle concocted for theater cognoscenti. Composer Eric Rockwell and lyricist Joanne Bogart (they co-wrote the book) have created five variants on a hackneyed melodrama plot (villainous landlord demands rent from cash-strapped heroine; resourceful hero saves the day). The variations wickedly parody the oeuvres of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Kander and Ebb. Verbal, musical and narrative allusions zip by faster than tap shoes in "42nd Street." Gratuitous glitzy costume changes mock "Mame"; lyrics like "A chipmunk is reading the Bible" send up Hammerstein's wholesome Americana; absurdly jagged rhythms and tonalities goof on Sondheim scores (MetroStage's Lawler scowls perplexedly at his sheet music during one particularly taxing passage).

Choreographer Nancy Scales Harry, also a veteran of the 2007 run, adds another level of smart lampooning with dances that skewer Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins's "The King and I" exoticism, and more. A blatantly phallic sequence with a corncob, burlesquing Agnes de Mille's "Oklahoma!" dream ballet, is priceless.

Kaye's actors have a field day with the material. Among various delectable turns, Smith totters around hilariously as a sinister, cross-eyed, denim-clad handyman (in "Corn," the Rodgers and Hammerstein caricature), and he's wonderfully unhinged as a quivery-voiced Sweeney Todd-esque killer. Gulisano-Sunday segues deftly from a "Company"-style neurotic in librarian glasses to a brassy Evita clone.

Whether he's doing the Charleston, impersonating an aw-shucks cowboy, vamping in speakeasy garb, or playing a bow-tied dweeb who's written song lyrics on a matchbook cover, Anderson makes a terrific addition to the "Musical" team. As for the excellent Migliaccio, whose baleful cob-shucking Mother Abby ("Corn") is particularly enjoyable: She'll leave the production in mid-September to join the upcoming Broadway revival of "Ragtime." Replacing her will be Heather Mayes.

Mayes's impact has yet to be gauged, but given the production's overall strength, musical theater enthusiasts who missed the show in 2007 -- and even those who didn't -- should schedule a visit. If you treat your original-cast-album shelf like a shrine; if you can name every diva who's ever played Momma Rose on the Great White Way, "Musical of Musicals" is a Cain't-Say-No proposition.

The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!), music by Eric Rockwell, lyrics by Joanne Bogart, book by Rockwell and Bogart. Directed by Larry Kaye; musical direction, Doug Lawler; lighting design, Terry Smith; costumes, Erin Nugent; sound, Steve Baena. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Through Oct. 18 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Call 800-494-8497 or visit http://www.metrostage.org.