Gutenberg! The Musical, Book, music and lyrics by Scott Brown & Anthony King. Directed by Allen E. Phelps. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Dominick Varney and Shaun Rice; photo: provided
"It is fiction that's true."
In order to tell the story of Johann Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press, authors Doug Simon and Bud Davenport have written it as a musical, but. . .as one of them says. . .once he invents the press, the story ends and there's nothing more to do - no second act. So the guys invent a devilish monk, a grape presser named Helvetica who loves Gutenberg, a whole host of other characters including an anti-semitic flower girl - a representative of the Holocaust to come in a few hundred years - and just go ahead and rewrite history. As the authors of a musical, Doug and Bud are not alone in this tweaking of the actual story.
In "South Pacific" an older French planter in Polynesia turns the tide for the war in the Pacific in 1944. It didn't happen that way. In "Damn Yankees" a bit of influence from the Devil and his wicked seductress, Lola, turned the world series between the Washington Senators and the New York Yankees into Washington's hands. I don't think so. Yet we trumpet our approval of these historic rewrites so that we may celebrate the songs and the scenery and the special effects.
So it is with "Gutenberg! The Musical." We approve of the version with the dead baby and the singing rats and the death of Gutenberg before he prints the Bible. Someone else can have the privilege of creating the Gutenberg Bible. Who cares. The musical's creators have too much fun doing it their own way, just like Rodgers and Hammerstein and so many others.
Luckily, so do we. Us. We. The two actors who play the two authors, one straight and one gay, also seem to have too much fun. Dominick Varney as Doug and Shaun Rice as Bud play as only classic players do. In almost Shakespearean fashion they take on the many characters their characters have created and present them with altered faces, changed voices and doffed caps. In one hour and thirty-eight minutes (with an intermission) they lead a stampade of characters across the small stage at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, NY as they take history by the throat and, utilizing an on-line convention, maul history and biography for the sake of the name: "Gutenberg! The Musical."
Rice is a veritable Stubby Kaye as he parades his way through most of the women characters including the heroine, Helvetica (or villainess if you prefer), the evil Monk and a host of others. He is spot on with his vocal and physical representations. This is a very funny man at work. He's a joy to behold.
Varney uses his long, slippery body to create visual images of his characters. His title character is all emotions, all vibrant changes. Varney's choices for his characters are unique and he enters and exits these other folks without batting an eyelash. Like Rice, he is very, very funny. And he does a classic drunk scene twice.
Doug and Bud are presenting a backer's audition for us and in so doing they require us to do what they do: use our imaginations. If we do then this show is another hit musical about changing the truth to write a hit show. While the historian in me might balk, the theater-lover side of my personality says 'go for it, what the hell!' and I have a ball.
Director Allen E. Phelps has a real sense of delicate comic timing in his work on this show. The two men on stage don't miss a single possible laugh and with Phelps watching and poking and adjusting them they are never out of our sight but make us laugh and laugh and even sigh over a dead cat (but no one sighed, I noticed, over the dead baby). There are a few surprises in the show that this penner of reports will never reveal and Phelps and crew bring them off to perfection.
In short, this small show (seen the day after a very long and very big show) is a very good show about a show being presented as show must be heard. As the intended audience for the show it is our duty to show up to be showered with show business rhetoric and be shown the truth about how shows are created. So do what I did and show up. You'll find the show so worth it.
Gutenberg! The Musicalplays at the Theater Barn, located at 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY through August 3.
For information and tickets call the box office at 518-794-8989 or go on line to www.theaterbarn.com.