You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! There’s even a serious issue (spoiler alert: it’s the Holocaust). Such is the sales pitch that the fictional playwrights Bud Davenport (Ryan Burke) and Doug Simon (John Loughney) give a group of Broadway producers (i.e. we, the audience) as they present their new musical, Gutenberg. This play-within-a-play trope is the substance of Gutenberg! The Musical! the riotous new show at NextStop Theatre Company.
Bud and Doug are two rapidly ageing Broadway wannabes who see themselves as the next Rodgers and Hammerstein. The problem is, their ideas are, well… in need of some work shopping. Their latest venture, Gutenberg! The Musical! is a liberal re-interpretation of the life and times of Johannes Gutenberg, the 15th century inventor of the printing press. Although the would-be Kander and Ebb note that their ideal cast size is around 45, not including live animals, for the current production it is just they. So, between the two of them they wear many hats, literally, as it is through a galaxy of labeled visors that Bud and Doug play all the various roles in Gutenberg, from the titular lead to “Friend” and “Drunk 2”.
Both Ryan Burke and John Loughney display monumental versatility as they switch, sometimes within seconds, between the various heroes, villains, ingénues, and anti-Semites they have built into their walloping turkey of a show. The humor, then, is not just in watching the so-bad-it’s-good “historical fiction” about the progenitor of modern literacy; it is also in Bud and Doug themselves, the achingly earnest authors who truly believe that the dream of their show, like Gutenberg’s dream, is only a hairs breadth from completion.
Director Evan Hoffman (also the Artistic Director of NextStop) was spot-on in casting Burke and Loughney as the not-so-dynamic duo who are endearing one moment (“Awww, they really care about each other”) and cringe-inducing the next (“Did they just make a fourth dead baby joke?!”). There are also some lovely details in the staging and set design by Jon Harvey, from a low-tech onstage light board that the authors must operate themselves, to a pointedly unenthusiastic accompanist (Steve Przybyiski, who also Music Directed). Interestingly, the house is set up like a coffee house cabaret, with chairs clustered around small round tables, before a tiny stage. It is a bold choice, and on balance, a good one. Even though it made the space feel tiny, it also added to the air of improvisational do-it-your selfdom that Gutenberg is all about.
There is even a false program-within-the-program authored by (who else?) Bud and Doug, complete with Comic Sans font and mistakenly upside-down text. It is these little daggers of ineptitude that give away how talented and intentional the artists at Next Stop really are, and make Gutenberg! The Musical such a delight to witness. The authors may be naïve, and even insensitive. But they have a dream, by God, and that’s something we can all afford to cheer on.
Running Time: 90 minutes, plus one intermission.
Gutenberg! The Musical! plays through February 1, 2015 at NextStop Theatre Company – 269 Sunset Park Drive – in Herndon, Virginia. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 481-5930, or purchase them online.