The unusual title of the show is [title of show], the brackets and lower-casing of which are salt in the wounds of any harried copy editor. But the new work by Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell was pounded out so hastily in order to make the NYMF submission deadline that marketing issues like figuring out a provocative title can be figured out later.
For now, the play's the thing. Here's how the show, with book by Bell and music and lyrics by Bowen, is described: "On April 10, 2004, the creators received an email about a new musical theatre festival that was accepting submissions for original works. With the deadline only three weeks away and nothing in the can to contribute, they wrote a musical to submit to the festival about writing a musical to submit to the festival.
"They say 'write what you know' and so they wrote what they knew right then. Without limits or censorship, they explored what it takes to create, and examined the voices in our heads that keep us from creating.
"When the three weeks were up, lo and behold, they had a new musical, [title of show], ready to submit..."
Bridge Club Productions presents the work, which marks the New York directorial debut of Tony Award-nominated actor Michael Berresse (Kiss Me, Kate), who also choreographs the intimate piece, at The Belt Theatre. Larry Pressgrove handles musical direction and arrangements. The cast includes Bell (as Hunter), Bowen (as Jeff), Susan Blackwell (who contributed additional material, as Susan) and Heidi Blickenstaff (as Stacia) — and musical director Pressgrove as Larry.
"I knew these guys from their work, and also Susan Blackwell, and they did a little workshop version of this after they had written it and before they knew whether or not they were going to be performing it in the festival," Berresse told Playbill On-Line. "I acted as a kind of consultant for them then, and when they were accepted I came on full time to direct it."
The gig represents a new direction Berresse wants to explore: directing and choreographing, particularly new works. He hasn't given up acting — indeed, he wants to pursue more non-musical acting — but he's reaching to embrace new things such as directing, choreographing and writing.
What attracted Berresse to [title of show]?
"There's a lot of self-referential stuff out there," Berresse said, "and I think that is born from that desire for creative people to find a more organic and less compromised outlet for their work. It's hard, especially for new writers in this industry, to feel like they can really follow their hearts and not have to cater and pander. That's why a lot of the really interesting stuff is born in small venues."
He continued, "What was so unique about the structure of this piece is that it has that silly irreverence and a lot of very funny inside stuff, but at heart I'm a very serious person and I really, really love this art form — and it's very obvious these guys feel the same way. They're very serious people who really adore it. It's not about making fun of the art form at all. It's about trying to remember what it is that makes it so unique, so special and so affecting."
Because Berresse — whose athletic dancing as Bill wowed audiences in the recent Kiss Me, Kate revival — is attached as director-choreographer, he said, " I think people expect it to be a heavily choreographic show." It's not.
Berresse said he's "very proud of that history" as a dancing actor, but it was not his intent to be a musical theatre dancer when he was a kid.
"I studied as an actor, and I was an instrumentalist when I was young," he explained. "I wanted to be a classical musician, which is something very few people know about me in New York. They know I came in, I got an opportunity because I was an athletic dancer, and I ran with the ball — because that's what you do when you're given an opportunity — and I followed that for a very long time and it was very, very rewarding for me. Ultimately, I think my goal was always to direct. When I stepped into this process with [title of show], as a musician all of my musical and instrumental training came back and I found myself operating very facilely with Jeffrey, the composer, and the musical director. The most difficult aspect of this was the choreography. There's no big production number. It's not a big Weissler revival."
Also on Berresse's horizon is a three-character play he is acting in. "I want to continue to work as an actor and an dancer, as long as I can," Berresse said. "But really it's a different skill to direct and I find I am very comfortable in that realm. I like having authority, but only with regards to help clarify an emotion. For me to be able to do that and step away and let other people filter it through them is, right now in my life, a particularly satisfying thing."
Performances play Sept. 22 at 8 PM, Sept. 25 at 8 PM, Sept. 26 at 1 PM, Sept. 28 at 4:30 PM and Oct. 1 at 4:30 PM and 8 PM at The Belt Theatre, 336 West 37th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.
All tickets are $15. For information, call (212) 352-3101 or visit www.nymf.org.
Hunter Bell was a 2003 finalist in Warner Brothers Comedy Writers' Workshop. He has written spec scripts, pilots, and industrial films. His play Stuck by EPCOT will be featured in the upcoming series of short plays, The Mother Load. He has helped develop new works at the Dramatists Guild, Irish Rep, PS 122, Goodspeed/Chester, and MTC. As an actor, he has performed at the St. Louis Rep, Great Lakes Theatre Festival, The MUNY, Dallas Shakespeare Festival, Cleveland Playhouse, Alliance Theatre, Coconut Grove, and Paper Mill Playhouse. He won the 2003 Connecticut Outer Critics Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Bill Snibson in Me and My Girl at the Goodspeed Opera House.
Susan Blackwell has worked extensively with Bridge Club Productions, appearing in the Electra Monologues, Saying Anything, The Myth of Female Bonding (all by Laura Camien) and Shrinkage by Manuel Igrejas. With the The New Wondertwins, she has hosted the Avant Garde-Arama series at PS 122 for two seasons, and performed at such venues as Dixon Place, The Hedda Lettuce Show at Caroline's Comedy Club, and The HBO Workspace (L.A.). Television credits include "The Sopranos", "Third Watch" and various "Law & Orders." She has performed Off-Broadway in Working Title and Vilna's Got a Golem, and played Peter Patrone in The Heidi Chronicles. She was also a member of the Guthrie Theatre Acting Company for two seasons.
Jeff Bowen has composed music for several shows for the Avant Garde-Arama series at PS 122, Sparklefest 2000 at Dixon Place, and the film, "Boat Mime." His on stage credits include The Who's Tommy, The Diviners, The Doctor in Spite of Himself, Of Thee I Sing, The Sandbox and Evita, among others.
Larry Pressgrove was musical director for Cats both on Broadway and for the national tour. He was musical director for the national tour of Les Miserables and conducted Colm Wilkinson's last staged performance of that show at the National Opera Theatre in Shanghai, China. In addition, he was assistant conductor for the tour of The Phantom of the Opera. His regional credits include The Fantasticks at the Ford's Theatre, Sweeney Todd at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and The Most Happy Fella at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. Currently, he is musical director for the New York premiere of Children's Letters to God at the Lamb's Theatre, and recently conducted the new musical Two Cities at the Rich Forum in Stamford, CT.