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Stop the Presses! 

A foursome of well-known local theater hands — Gary Rucker, Sean Patterson, Kelly Fouchi and Megan Sauzer Harms — launched FourFront Theatre, a new production company. Their first work, Gutenberg! The Musical!, just ran at Southern Rep.

Gutenberg! was written by Scott Brown and Anthony King and opened Off-Broadway in 2007. About the only thing the comedy has in common with the song and dance spectaculars of the Great White Way is the exclamation point, but Gutenberg! is staged as a backers' audition. Among the audience, we assume, there are some big money boys who can launch this unlikely extravaganza on the world. The story is presented by two friends — Doug Simon (Rucker) and Bud Davenport (Patterson) — who have collaborated on the project. They are aided by pianist and musical director Charles (James Kelly), who stays tucked away behind his upright.

Doug and Bud have quit their day jobs in a nursing home and Starbucks, respectively, to take this leap into show biz. They are interested in the 15th-century inventor of the printing press because so little is actually known about him, although they also think he is the most important man in history. They took the liberty of filling in details about him, creating a historical fiction — "fiction that's true," as they described it.

Much of the drama indulges imbecility. Musicals in general don't address rocket science, but we are dealing with some pretty low wattage here. Imbecility can be funny. Gracie Allen made a career of it. Giving a lecture on perseverance, Gracie once scolded husband George Burns: "You must be firm. You must stand alone. Look at Joan of Arc. They all laughed at her. But she went ahead and built it anyway."

I found Doug and Bud to be just a tad over the line in terms of imbecility — especially at the top of the show. But as the show progessed, the narrative got so intricate and extreme that the imbecility mattered less. It was a hard show not to enjoy. Rucker and Patterson gave energetic, ingratiating performances, and they had the audience in stitches.

The presentation was simple and effective. The stage was bare, except for a table that had a bunch of caps on it. Each cap had a name on it to identify a character. Doug and Bud played all the parts, even women's roles. They simply put on the identifying cap to help us keep track of who they were at any given time. They didn't change their speaking manner or posture much — like the actors do in some other small shows, like Greater Tuna. They simply concentrated on telling the story, including performing song and dance numbers — with pleasing choreography by Fouchi and Harms.

Part of the fun, of course, came from parody of the musical genre. For instance, Doug and Bud brought anti-Semitism and even the Holocaust into Gutenberg!, because "the story takes place in Germany and Germans hate Jews. Every musical has to tackle at least one very important issue." They also tossed around jargon like the "charm song" and the "I want song" to give themselves the air of old pros.

In the story, Gutenberg has a wine press. Helvetica, who is in love with him, spends her life stomping on grapes in a bucket. Meanwhile, here, there and everywhere, people are ashamed of their illiteracy. It's the elephant in the room. But then again, what would they read? There are almost no books.

This quandary pushes Gutenberg to invent the printing press. He will make it so that everyone can read, and he will start by printing the Bible. There are many complications involving things like an evil monk who believes it's better if people can't read — especially the Bible — so that they have to take his word for what it says.

The humor of the show often comes by way of overstatement. All thatched roof houses are grotesquely filthy, and a dungeon where Helvetica is imprisoned reeks of feces and swarms with rats. Camp doesn't quite describe the humor, but there is something of the outrageousness of camp without the gender tricks.

Rucker and Patterson co-directed and clearly had a good time with the material. We look forward to the company's next show.

click to enlarge Doug Simon (Gary Rucker) and Bud Davenport (Sean Patterson) pitch a musical spectacular in Gutenberg! The Musical!
  • Doug Simon (Gary Rucker) and Bud Davenport (Sean Patterson) pitch a musical spectacular in Gutenberg! The Musical!
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