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Musical about a musical is still clever despite showing its age

THEATER REVIEW: "[Title of Show]" at Northlight Theatre ★★½

Chris Jones

3:38 PM CDT, May 14, 2012

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Before there was the rapidly atrophying NBC sitcom "Smash," there was "[Title of Show]," a cleverly metadramatic little show by Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen, wherein a couple of young guys trying to write a hit musical decide that their best option is to write a musical about their writing a musical, and thus the musical they are trying to write simultaneously becomes the musical you are paying to see.

If your head is already spinning at the very thought of all that Pirandellian self-awareness, this is not your show. When "[Title of Show]," with a title designed to make copy editors crazy, was produced at the Vineyard Theatre in 2006, the target audience was those rabid fans of Broadway, for whom O'Neill meant Eugene, the playwright, not Shaquille, the athlete, and for whom a lyric like "My show will be a success/ Not a big mess like 'Chess'" was only stating the obvious comparative.

Frankly, now six years have gone by, "[Title of Show]," a couple of very small updates notwithstanding, not only requires an audience to care about Broadway trivia, but to remember what was au courant in 2006. Things have changed quickly — "[Title of Show]" has a recurring and strikingly archaic motif involving answering-machine messages which feels positively "Rent"-like in its period, and the onstage appearance of a program for the musical "The Pirate Queen" was almost enough to break me out in hives. Some things are best laid to rest. And while Bernadette Peters is still very much Bernadette Peters, whether she still works emblematically as the sine qua of all things Broadway is now open to some question. Megan Hilty is moving up fast.

To put all this another way, "[Title of Show]" is warm, smart, wry, creative, melodic and surprisingly dated (that's always the risk with satire).

The piece also is less than fully comfortable on the relatively large stage at Northlight Theatre, especially since director Peter Amster has cast this piece a little (ahem) older than was ideal. The advantage of that is you get a quarter of very skilled actors and accomplished singers in Matthew Crowle, Stephen Schellhardt. McKinley Carter and Christine Sherrill — Crowle is deliciously restless and entertaining and Sherrill is especially charming throughout — but they all feel a bit too polished for the actual material, which is predicated on inexperience and the hunger of youth. These folks, especially the two women, feel like accomplished theatrical pros.

The production, which is accompanied by Doug Peck at the piano, is quite witty, very nicely sung and, especially when Crowle lets lose, injected with intermittent spark. But this piece was, in its way, very fresh and experimental when it first came out (you might think of it as the edgier dad of "Smash") and before this particular bandwagon was jumped upon so often by so many. In this production, too much of that edge feels flattened into the conventional. The piece has a decent little score and plenty of laughs that still work well. It just needs something new and risky to jump-start itself again, something that just wasn't there this weekend, where the general trajectory was too comfortable.

In New York, of course, the main joke went one step further because you were watching the actual creators onstage themselves; the moment the show gets licensed and filled in with different players, that inevitably gets lost. During the slower moments on Sunday afternoon, I kept thinking that we're still waiting for the Broadway satire that, unlike either this show or "Smash," really has the guts to resist the desire to name-check and venerate the industry power brokers, ensuring a smooth ride, and stick the cold hard truth to 'em instead. All that show would need is a title.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through June 10

Where: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Tickets: $25-$60 at 847-673-6300 and northlight.org