Arts & Culture » Theater

Song of Songs

The Musical of Musicals is a real hoot.


The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting another musical parody — this one with a less-scatological title than its Off-Ramp cousin, Urinetown. The Musical of Musicals — The Musical! is as redundant as its title suggests — it's the same simple story told five times, each in the style of a different famous Broadway composer. The drama of this piece lies not in plot or character but in the audience's ability to discover and appreciate the way each of the five scenes packs in references to its artistic heritage. It's musical Trivial Pursuit, performed by an energetic and versatile cast of four in a simple but elegant production.

Key players from the New York première re-create their roles here: lyric/book writer and performer Joanne Bogart and director/choreographer Pamela Hunt. The other three performers — Matt Bailey, Kristin Maloney and Edwin Cahill — make their Rep debuts in this pun-ridden romp through musical-theater history.

"Corn," done in the style of Rodgers & Hammerstein, draws on perennial favorites like Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I and South Pacific. Maloney plays spunky heroine June, who's in love with Bailey as Big Willy. Trouble comes from Cahill as Jidder, and help comes from Mother Abby (Bogart) in a "Climb Every Mountain" spoof. Groans come from jokes as "corny" as praising the "kernel of truth" and critiquing the Dream Ballet as "run of de Mille."

The world of Sweeney Todd, Company, A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods is evoked in "A Little Complex," based on the works of Stephen Sondheim. In this version, Jitter is an artist who wants to kill the tenants in his apartment complex, The Woods, so he can incorporate their dead bodies into his artwork. Lighting designer Mary Jo Dondlinger's use of underlighting and red specials combines with sound designer Tori Meyer's painfully shrill doorbell to evoke a convincingly spooky environment.

In sharp contrast to the Sondheim "complexity" is "Dear Abby," done in the breezy style of Jerry Herman. Here Maloney and Bailey showcase their dance skills, while Bogart plays the aging (and clueless) star. All that's needed to evoke memories of Hello, Dolly! are a feather boa (provided by costume designer Dorothy Marshall Englis) and a movable black staircase (courtesy of scenic designer James Morgan).

Act Two begins with "Aspects of Junita" in the style of Andrew Lloyd Webber. This scene uses a fog machine to great comic effect, while Cahill shines as Phantom Jitter in an over-the-top (and loving it) performance. Bogart's lyrics and Eric Rockwell's music delightfully skewer Sir Webber's operatic overachievements, especially with phrases like "wretched recitative" and the surprise demise of heroine Junita (beware the chandelier).

The final parody, "Speakeasy," is done in the style of Kander & Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret). As Dondlinger's lights shift to sharp angles and aqua lines, the stage becomes a Chicago nightclub where the actors mysteriously speak in German accents. In between the Fosse pelvic thrusts and Cahill's wild laughter as the Emcee, Bogart transforms into a comically wicked German chanteuse. The finale — "Done" — is a spoof of "One" from A Chorus Line. While the lights swirl and the actors do the requisite kick line, the effervescent evening comes to an end.

The short (95 minutes, including intermission) and harmonic production owes much to musical director/pianist Henry Palkes, who leads John Brophy on percussion and Jay Hungerford on bass. Their accompaniment occasionally threatens to overpower the singers, but ultimately the vocalists prevail.

The simple production elements allow the complex lyrics to take center stage, and it's a credit to director Hunt and the cast that almost all of the words are clearly heard. The collage of in-jokes and musical references must leave some audience members feeling quite superior: They knew their avid attendance at musical after musical would pay off someday!

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