Theater Review: The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!)

Photo by Alan Theisen
Photo by Alan Theisen

Part parody, part homage to the classic Broadway Musical, The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!) is just as goofy as its title suggests. The show continues its run at Asheville Community Theatre’s 35below space through Sunday, Jan. 22.

Director Misty Theisen has assembled a group of talented performers to present this trope: A young woman is being threatened by a dastardly villainous landlord. She can not pay her rent and all hope is lost as the villain looms large over her life. A hero must overcome obstacles to rescue her. Now for the twist: They will perform this simple scenario a total of five times, each time taking on a different and distinct style of musical theater.

Act one commences with a classic Rodgers and Hammerstein vibe, with shades of Oklahoma! leading the way while other bits and pieces of familiar shows like The King And I, Sound of Music and Carousel are slyly woven into it. Once the story resolves and the hero prevails, scene two begins. This time, there’s a Stephen Sondheim flavor. Sweeny Todd, Company and Into The Woods are given clever reworkings within the established premise. Act one ends with an homage to Jerry Herman shows like Mame and Hello Dolly.

The approach is one that takes a few minutes to settle into. It is peculiar. But once the audience relaxes and realizes that this is all in fun, the laughs come more easily. Act two accelerates the over-the-top antics, kicking off with Andrew Lloyd Webber-fueled lunacy, complete with a Phantom of The Opera spoof that fully descends into Cats. Once the Cats reveal happened, one woman in the front row got a contagious case of the giggles, and kept “meowing” and laughing for minutes following the scene. Act two ends with a glitzy and decadent Kander and Ebb Cabaret climax.

The show sometimes feels like vaudeville and other times feels like the Naked Gun movies due to the absurd humor. The young girl is swept up by the villain, and she screams for him to put her down. Without missing a beat, he unleashes a sting of insults — not the kind of put down she was after.

A show like this requires a deft touch to keep it balanced between mockery and parody. Theisen (also the production’s producer and pianist) found the right balance in her approach, and she brought in some top local vocalist, who are up to the challenge of the musical workout required. Strother Stingley is the hero, while his real life partner Tabitha Judy is the young damsel in perpetual distress. Daniel Hensley is the mustache-twirling villain and Karen Covington-Yow is the supportive and matronly sage who helps keep the storyline moving forward.

The show is sparse in the 35Below space — there are no large sets or elaborate scene changes. It is simply four performers, four chairs, with a few wardrobe pieces and wigs. The energy exchange between performers and patrons is immediate and infectious.Those with a deeper-than-passing knowledge of musical theater over the past 60- plus years might better appreciate some of the comedy, but it is not required. The humor still works for even a Broadway neophyte.

Note: Several performances are already sold out, so advance tickets are strongly suggested.

WHAT: The Musical of Musicals, The Musical
WHERE: 35below, 35 Walnut Street, ashevilletheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Jan. 22. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m.. $20

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About Jeff Messer
playwright, actor, director and producer, Jeff Messer has been most recently known as a popular radio talk show host. He has been a part of the WNC theatre scene for over 25 years, and actively works with and supports most of the theatres throughout the region. Follow me @jeffdouglasmess

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