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525,600 allusions in [title of show]


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Hard-core musical fans will recognize that a mention of 525,600 is an allusion to "Seasons of Love," the song that opens Act 2 of Rent. Those are the people who will feel most at ease with [title of show], now at Actor's Theatre of Charlotte. After all, the original Broadway show not only starred Jeff Bowen, who wrote the music and lyrics, and Hunter Bell, who wrote the book. It was also about the Bowen-Bell team. So there is more than a little shoptalk by the two men, who are obviously students of their craft.

The plot of [title of show] was elegantly involuted when it burst on the scene in 2004 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Here were Bowen and Bell onstage, performing a musical about themselves writing this musical about themselves writing this musical. It was a huge success d'estime at the Festival, but the work wasn't done. The original [title of show] chronicled the creation of the work that appeared at the Festival, but the 2008 Broadway version chronicled the uphill struggle of converting a fringe success — with just four characters! — into a full-fledged Broadway musical with four characters.

Here in Act 2, as the team struggles to extend the life of their creation, wooing backers and worrying over mass audience appeal, is where [title of show] develops its keenest tensions and humor. It suddenly occurs to the boys, as they embark on Act 2, that if people are going to pay the insane ticket prices of a Broadway show, they'll need to make every moment keenly exciting. So Hunter, pen and pad in his hands, sits there silently for 10-15 seconds, waiting for his next boffo idea.

In other words, if you don't get all the insider references to past musicals, you'll likely feel like you're in on the funny games that Bowen and Bell are playing with us — hilariously serious and self-conscious in a manner that shuttles between Pirandello and Woody Allen. Besides Jeff and Hunter, we also encounter musical actresses Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff. After all, wouldn't we be more interested in a musical about two guys writing a musical if it also had two female characters who have been recruited to be characters in this musical?

On a minimal set that he designed, director Chip Decker goes against the grain in his casting. All his actors are like we've never seen them before. Ryan Stamey, the company's go-to wildman in Great American Trailer Park Musical and Evil Dead, essays a human role in Hunter, while Susan Roberts Knowlson, the Rodgers & Hammerstein sweetheart of CP Summer Theatre, is startlingly liberated as Susan B, easily her sluttiest turn to date.

We've never seen the others in musicals before. Rory Dunn helped to launch the season on a stage that was nearly as bare in The 39 Steps, where he was one of the clowns. Here he serves very nicely as the songwriting Jeff. But the real revelation is Allison Lamb as Heidi, the actress who jeopardizes the whole project when she auditions for The Little Mermaid. The woman is a superb singer, not at all overshadowed by La Knowlson.

I'm sure it would have been just as uproarious if Bowen and Bell had written about themselves selling out their principles and creating a piece of schlock. But with so much brainy archness along the way, [title of show] doesn't lack for belly laughs even if the brew is diluted with some hackneyed integrity.

Oh yeah, Ryan Deal is onstage behind the keyboard, playing the nifty score. Naturally, he gets into the act.


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