When The Musical of Musicals: The Musical! played at the Toronto Fringe this summer, I stayed clear due to the title. I’ve seen far too many witless meta-musicals ending in exclamation points, where the only joke is a literal-minded one: Ain’t it funny when characters break into song?
But, as it turns out, I never met a musical like this before. Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart’s 2003 show is rare, indeed – an outright parody of musical theatre that occasionally exhibits actual lyrical brilliance, at times almost inviting comparison to the luminaries it mocks. It’s also an off-Broadway hit not overladen with New Yorkiness. Yes, it contain a few too many corny jokes and puns, but, on the other hand, there are a lot of corny jokes and puns.
The Musical of Musicals: The Musical! – which Mirvish Productions is now remounting at the Panasonic with its Fringe cast intact – tells a similar story five times. June (Dana Jean Phoenix) can’t pay her rent and landlord Jitters (Mark Cassius) is on her case. Will her boyfriend Willy (Adrian Marchuk) and/or an aging diva named Abby (Paula Wolfson) come to the rescue in time?
Things kick off with a version in the vein of Rodgers and Hammerstein called Corn! Naturally, it riffs mostly on Oklahoma! but The Sound of Music topically gets attacked too, so there’s an over-larded inspirational song in which June’s mother Abby implores her daughter to follow a rainbow over the mountain to the island of her dream.
These are pretty easy targets – and the gags about Big Willy are gagworthy – but Rockwell and Bogart find a deeper level of cleverness in a song in which the two lovers sing, “I couldn’t care less about you.” It’s a parody of reverse-psychology songs like People Will Say We’re In Love that also functions quite nicely as one itself due to chemistry between Phoenix and Marchuk.
It’s the next section – a Stephen Sondheim spoof – that really sells the show, however. A Little Complex takes place in a New York apartment where: “All of our tenants are very neurotic / Emotional lives are completely chaotic / The song in their hearts aren’t ever melodic.”
Here, Jitter is not only a landlord but an artist and murderer (mashing up Sunday in the Park with George and Sweeney Todd), who plots to turn tenants into papier mâché – his entrances marked by screeching factory whistle. Played with sufficient pretentiousness by Cassius, one of his songs seems to come from Into the Woods: “I am not a loon – truly, no one is a loon.”
After intermission, Aspects of Juanita goes the Andrew Lloyd Webber route – in the very theatre that saw a Cats revival earlier this year – and then the concept slightly overstays its welcome with a Kander and Ebb rip-off.
Under the direction of Vinetta Strombergs, the four actors vary in their approaches to parody and how deep into the characters in each skit they go. Dana Jean Phoenix, playing a succession of ingenues, has the right pedigree for the material – she holds degrees from Sheridan College’s musical theatre program and Second City’s improv institute. More importantly, she sings everything like she means it whether she’s sending up classic, sexist schtick in Corn! or channelling her inner Celine Dion for Aspects of Juanita. It’s a remarkable comic performance.
If everyone signed on to the same degree she does, the punctuation of the title would be justified. As it is, Cassius and Wolfson commit to characters only intermittently in what seems more like a series of impressions, while Marchuk sings the heck out of the music but doesn’t always land the jokes. If you’re the type of person who might wear one of the “I Love Musicals” buttons that Mirvish was handing out in the lobby and you’ve already seen the superlative productions of Les Miserables and Once in town, however, I suspect you will thoroughly enjoy yourself.
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