"Writers block” might be dirty words to writers . . .


Photo by carol Rosegg 

Photo by carol Rosegg 

But the condition can prove fertile ground for someone looking to create an original, unique work of art. Just ask composer and lyricist Jeff Bowen and librettist Hunter Bell. Their proof is the musical “{title of show}.” The name of the musical might raise eyebrows and cause English teachers fits, but it won Bell a nomination for Best Book of a Musical on Broadway.

The show, a musical comedy about a pair of struggling writers writing a musical about writing a musical, is on-stage through Nov. 16 in an inspiring, vivacious production at the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood.

This show isn’t a lecture about how to create a musical. You don’t have to be a musical theater buff to appreciate what these characters are experiencing. Sure, if you’re interested in how a musical gets created or you love musicals it helps (cultural references include shout-outs to the ultra popular “Wicked” and “Rent”). But if you’ve ever tried to create an original work of art and found yourself without ideas, and a deadline looming, you can identify with the characters.

“{title of show}” is ultimately about four people persevering against tremendous odds to come up with an original musical. In the process, they learn about the importance of not giving up, collaboration, sacrifice and about themselves and their values.  They’d rather create a work that’s “nine people’s favorite thing” than “109 people’s ninth favorite thing.”

The show is semi-factual: A little more than a decade ago, Bell and Bowen were struggling writers who decided to submit an entry to the New York Musical Theatre Festival with just three weeks to pen a piece from scratch. Sure, they could adapt a work from its source material, but the pair wanted to create their own, unique, original musical.
So they wrote one about their experience writing a musical with the help of their actress friends Susan and Heidi.

The result: Bell was nominated for a Tony award for Best Book of a Musical and their little show that could won several other awards. With simpler works such as “{title of show},” which requires mere chairs and a small cast, the performer-audience connection is more powerful in an intimate setting such as Beck Center’s Studio Theatre.

The actors emotions also register more powerfully with the audience. Never-say-die artists such as Jeff, Hunter, Heidi and Susan are easy to root for. But if they’re not likable, we won’t care as much.

Thankfully, director Scott Spence (who doubles as scenic designer, and has set the scene with Playbills of Broadway musicals decorating the walls of an unidentified place) and his actors ensure these people are likable.

Sure, in their portrayals, the performers convey frustration, a feeling of failure at times and a desire to give up, but these are human emotions. It’s safe to say everyone’s experienced it at one time or another. What especially endears us to these characters is their upbeat nature and ambition, sans arrogance or self-entitlement. They’re also grounded, although at least one can’t help but dream of opening their show on Broadway.

Pat Miller imbues Jeff with a cool, understated optimism and confidence, while Will Sanborn’s Hunter has an intense, “ants in his pants” drive to see this project through to success.

The actresses have the chance to be the center of comedic attention. There’s a scene, for instance, during which the women portray “voices” inside the heads of the musical’s creators. As the women finish a sentence, they echo the last syllable of the last word, as though they’re in a huge room producing an echo. That adds to the musical’s hilarity.
Heidi (Caitlin Elizabeth Reilly, a small dynamo with a powerful voice, swagger and a sexy aura) and Susan (Amiee Collier, who commands the stage, especially in the intense but fun song “Die, Vampire Die!”) are as good as their male counterparts. In “Die, Vampire Die!,” Susan suggests that stumbling blocks that inhibit an artist’s creativity are “dragons.”

The rest of the songs are mostly upbeat, if not memorable.

The choreography is generally creative. For one of the numbers, “Change It, Don’t Change It;” the actors spin around with their chairs, perhaps to suggest the spinning that’s going on in their heads as they contemplate changes to the script.