DC Theatre Reviews

The Musical of Musicals: The Musical!

Reviewed by Gary McMillan

April 18, 2007

    Will you listen to that?

    That’s the sound of an audience losing its mind!

    It’s the Pope on his balcony, blessing mankind!

    Folks, it’s Funny Girl, Fiddler and Dolly combined!

    It’s a hit! It’s a hit!

    It’s a palpable hit!

        – Stephen Sondheim, Merrily We Roll Along

The Musical of Musicals: The Musical! (MoMM) is a gem and Metro Stage has gifted the DC metropolitan area with this premiere polished, sparkling jewel of a production. While unabashedly targeted to musical theater aficionados, even folks who refer to cast recordings as "soundtracks" (eeeuw!) will howl with laughter at this swift-paced, wonderfully performed confection.

Start with a love triangle of sorts, add a trite crisis (can’t pay the mortgage/rent), set to music, and stir frequently. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Joanne Bogart (lyrics) and Eric Rockwell (music) share credit for the concept and book: how would acknowledged legends of the genre – Rodgers & Hammerstein, Sondheim, Herman, Lloyd-Webber and Kander & Ebb – play out this scenario? While political satire often shines brightest when its subject/object is, shall we say, bush-league dying, dying, deathly, doornail dead dim (where is that line from?), theater satire (musical and otherwise) requires solid source material to parody, or why bother? Bogart & Rockwell lovingly chose their musical victims wisely. This show will appeal to people who enjoy Off-Broadway’s Forbidden Broadway (and Tom Orr’s wickedly subversive, Dirty Little Showtunes), but MoMM is not parody lyrics set to actual show tunes. As theatre satire, it’s more akin to the loving jabs delivered in Mel Brooks’ The Producers and Eric Idle’s Spamalot. It is new music written in the vernacular of the composers being spoofed. At times, very, very, very, very, very closely in the style of these masters, which clearly reveals Rockwell’s knowledge of, and affection for, their work.

You will not find specifics here about what makes the show outstanding. This is a "spoiler" free zone. You will not read a punch line here; I won’t reveal specific sight gags. In addition to a hearty, good, long laugh, audiences deserve the joy of surprise. So I will not burst that bubble.

Allison Campbell’s set has to serve five productions. Her elegant solution is to provide a backstage backdrop: along the back wall, a clock, a low rail for costume items, a rail above with various kinds of chairs hung on pegs, a classic theatrical, lighted makeup mirror; a shelf of shoes, hats, and handbags; and a ladder, platforms and staircases to provide depth and a variety of performance focal points, with the piano claiming the left side of the stage. Costume changes are made on the fly. Erin Nugent has chosen just the right pieces of clothing – vests, shawls, hats, capes, and the like – to help the actors establish their characters quickly.

Dan Kazemi is credited as musical director/pianist. That he is, but he is also a part of this ensemble, lending his very nice voice, wry humor and quirky smile to the transitional moments before, between and after the five shows. And I can only imagine the smug smiles all around Metro Stage when the four principal cast members were signed.

Janine Gulisano-Sunday shines in the ingénue roles. Beauty, grace, charm, and bite (when required). From Belle (Beauty and the Beast) to shrew (Kiss Me, Kate), Gulisano-Sunday has proven her versatility. She’s in fabulous form here in parts from callow and shallow, to crass and coarse.

Russell Sunday exploded on my radar in another show at Metro Stage, a musical review of songs by Maltby & Shire, Closer Than Ever. He had a pop/rock-inspired show tune, "What Am I Doin’" (Up on a Roof)? It is, perhaps, the only song in musical theatre history blatantly about what we now consider "stalking" (as opposed to premeditated vengeance of the Sweeney Todd variety), and Sunday was stunning, ricocheting between confusion and obsession, as his rich voice soared and roared. It was one of those very rare occasions when I wished musical theatre fans were like opera lovers. Stop the show and make him sing it again, and again, and again. I later bought the cast recording of the original Off-Broadway production, but it didn’t have the spark of Sunday and the rest of Metro Stage’s cast. The Sundays, Janine and Russell, are firing on all cylinders here, so be prepared for serious fun and vocal bliss.

Bobby Smith’s press kit reveals that his right upper lift and left eyebrow are ensured by Lloyd’s of London for $100 million each. Sorry, I made that up. (I’m still trying to sell him the policy.) He’s a master of deadpan understatement. Here he plays the heavies, a villainous pack from sinister to the ridiculous. He’s Jud and Sweeney and Phantom. Wait til you hear him tackle a Sondheim-inspired, alliterative, tongue-twisting tune. His performance will kill you.

And then there’s Donna. Donna Migliaccio. Donna, Donna baby, Donna bubbie, Hello, Donna! Donna M. is unquestionably a force of nature in musical theatre. In MoMM, Migliaccio plays a broad range of characters, leading and supporting, and embodies each with her genius. I first saw the show on Sunday (press night). Donna blazed through so many 11 o’clock songs, I had no idea what day of the week it was when the show was over. Her comedy is simply fearless which gives her performance here an exciting edge. Just how far will she go?

Larry Kaye’s direction keeps the show moving at full clip, framing each scene for maximum comic effect. Nancy Harry’s choreography is cracked. Cracked corn. After seeing her demented DeMille dream ballet, you’ll probably never be able to watch Oklahoma! again without snickering.

It is really tempting to reveal just how clever the dialog and lyrics are or to describe some of the zanier moments that have the audience roaring with laughter. But let’s talk after you see the show!