We kids used to get around adulthood by writing in code, doubling up on punctuation marks to indicate the opposite meaning behind a sentence fragment. “Marty likes Kathy,,” meant Marty thinks Kathy’s a bitch; “Barb’s a straight-A student..” said that Barb doesn’t have a clue in class. Silly and obscure, yes — and supremely odd that it might recast itself today, leading one to suggest that Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company’s current Gutenberg! The Musical! isn’t musical, or theater, at all.
What’s that one thing about “Out of the mouths of babes”?
That said, let’s quickly reassure everybody that the sky isn’t about to fall. Tom Zohar and Anthony Methvin are as zany and as self-effacing as you care in this musical theater send-up, and director Kim Strassburger is as savvy a theater person as you’ll find. But all the talent in the world can’t eclipse shoddy, idiotic material; in fact, entertaining performances necessarily underscore the faults in a substandard script. It’s a case of too much and way too little, with the performance and literary elements woefully out of balance.
Characters Bud Davenport and Doug Simon have written the greatest Broadway musical in the history of great Broadway musicals — a megabudget piece on Germany’s Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press. They’ve taken their work to a backers audition, wherein they hope to find funding for their show, mounting their preview with the barest of bones; the two play all 30 roles and sing all the songs before the hitmakers. The satire may or may not end the way you’d expect — but suffice it to say that Broadway is clearly the butt (and the loving target) of the joke.
Writers Anthony King and Scott Brown have a scattershot piece on their hands, and that’s meant in a good way — Zohar’s Bud and Methvin’s Doug are busy throughout, singing stream-of-consciousness lyrics unto infinity and donning yellow and white baseball caps with the characters’ names on the front. There’s a palpable chemistry here, with Zohar’s smiley, bespectacled salesman Bud and Methvin’s vaguely punch-drunk Doug providing some decent contrast.
But my God, people. There’s funny and then there’s unsavory (witness the cap that reads “Dead Baby”). There’s spoofery and then there’s a haphazard roster of bad songs and dialogue about Germans versus Jews, an evil monk whose character goes nowhere, standalone one-liners about Elton John and John Candy and a love interest named Helvetica (Bud will try to persuade you that that’s also the name of a font when actually it’s the name of a typeface).
There’s historical perspective as a justification for humor and then there’s a vapid, kid-gloves approach to Gutenberg’s work, which trivializes the humor to begin with. There’s skilfully casting loose ends to the wind and then (horrors!) there’s a literal acknowledgment (through Bud) that that’s exactly what King and Brown are doing! Sam Shepard can get away with it because he knows how. King and Brown? Surely they jest, or at least try.
Above all, there’s no inkling that Bud and Doug have written their show as a labor of love. They come and they go without explanation amid a sound bed of hits from the great musicals; playing to the tunes might have helped, but that would have amounted to the slimmest of starts in shaping this thing up.
Under any circumstances, missteps in literature for the public stage simply do not dissipate. They grow. And they grow more uncontrollably when a well-meaning set of personnel can’t see them. Such is the case with Backyard Renaissance’s third in what’s hoped is a litany of good productions. This piece is likely the exception that will make the rule.
This review is based on the matinee performance of Aug. 21. Gutenberg! The Musical! runs through Sept. 4 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd. in University Heights. $30, 25 seniors and military, $20 students. 619-220-0097, backyardrenaissance.com.