A world premiere musical is currently finishing up its run this weekend at the Ivoryton Playhouse. It’s called “I Hate Musicals: The Musical” and it was written by Michael L. Reiss with original music composed by Walter Murphy. It will be closing on Sunday and that is a mercy for which we should all be thankful.
Mr. Reiss has been a successful Emmy-winning writer on TV’s “The Simpsons” for its entire run. His new musical is about Alvin (Stephen Wallem, valiant), a washed-up Hollywood comedy writer who used to work on some of the hottest sitcoms on TV. Alvin is pitching a bad idea for a new show to unsympathetic producer Diane (Amanda Huxtable) when an earthquake hits. After the dust clears, Alvin is stuck in a pile of debris unable to move and Diane appears to be dead. The next hour or so has Alvin waiting to be rescued (there are bigger stars to save) and experiencing a fever dream of the afterlife which recounts what a disagreeable person he’s been. On this journey he’s visited by the building’s security guard, his ex-wife and parents, Sigmund Freud, Jesus and the Virgin Mary among others.
The groaning puns and jokes come fast and furious and tend to settle into three categories: offensive, vulgar or stupid. There are jokes about Catholics, Jews, Gays, seniors, ex-wives, Hollywood (shooting fish in a barrel) and even a single throwaway line about Trump (I applaud the restraint here). For the score, Reiss adapts new lyrics to familiar standards from “My Fair Lady”, “La Cage Aux Folles”, “Peter Pan” and “Hamilton” as well as pop hits from Simon & Garfunkel and The Village People. His mini-musicals on “The Simpsons” are often the highlights of that brilliant series, but transferred from 2D to flesh-and-blood stage characters is definitely a whole other skill set. The “original music” composed by Mr. Murphy consists of a handful of mostly unmemorable tunes that include a tribute to McDonald’s and a curtain number called “My Brother the Pope”. Don’t ask.
Mr. Wallem, who is best known for his seven seasons on the Showtime series, “Nurse Jackie”, really does the best he can under rather dire circumstances. Stymied by being stuck in one sitting position for most of the show (is this Reiss’ shout-out to Becket’s “Happy Days”?), he has to do most of his acting with just his face and arms. His timing is good, though, and he’s in excellent voice making you long to catch him in a real musical some day. Under the pushy direction of James Valletti, the loud and lively supporting cast of five inhabits well over a dozen different characters with varying degrees of success. Ivoryton veteran R. Bruce Connelly plays Alvin’s Jewish theatre agent with every stereotype firmly in place, but he definitely gets some laughs in the process. And though I’m not here to review the audience, I will say there were plenty in attendance who seemed to enjoy every minute.
Daniel Nischan’s scenic design is serviceable while Marcus Abbott’s sporadic and often puzzling lighting comes and goes. Elizabeth Cipollina has been kept very busy as the show’s costume and wig designer. Sole Musician Michael Morris deserves credit for making his electronic keyboard at times sound like a full orchestra.
When Reiss’ last world premiere took place at Ivoryton in 2015, a tepid comedy called “Comedy Is Hard”, I noted the following: The anticipation for “Comedy Is Hard” stemmed from the track record of Mr. Reiss whose association as a writer for “The Simpsons” led one to high expectations for this new work. But any single 30-minute episode of “The Simpsons” has more wit, originality and satiric bite than the entire running time of “Comedy Is Hard”. It’s all still true, I’m afraid, for his newest work.
“I Hate Musicals: The Musical” continues at the Ivoryton Playhouse through October 15. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.767.7318 or visit: www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.