Fort Worth — Aw, Second City has a grandbaby. Now that can make you feel old.
Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre’s playful production of Gutenberg! The Musical! at the Fort Worth Community Art Center’s Sanders Theatre has “crazypants improv group think” written all over it. (“Yes, and?”) Sure enough, this wacky piece of work by Scott Brown and Anthony King was born about 10 years ago at New York’s epicenter of improvisation, the Upright Citizens Brigade—itself (is this like the “begats” in the Bible?) one of the many children of Chicago’s Second City, the ancestor-dot-comedy of North American improv since the 1950s.
From start to finish, the ridiculously goofy Gutenberg! has a random-orbit wobble that feels exactly like an improv sketch gone rogue. Anything might happen in this show about showbiz, and about two dreamers who’d like to quit their day jobs and get in the game. Doug (Joshua Sherman) and Bud (Jason Solis) have written a musical about Johannes Gutenberg, the German gent who invented the printing press in the 1400s. And now they’re pitching said show to an audience (that’s us) of possible Broadway producers. The boys are broke, but they have a plan: to play every part themselves and let (jazz hands) “imaaaaagination” do the rest.
Hilarity trumps history in Gutenberg! every time, especially since Bud and Doug admit their in-depth research (a half-hour on Google) turned up “scant” information about the man’s life. No matter, they say: this is historical fiction…which means we can make stuff up.
Alternative facts? Huzzah!
In Bud and Doug’s version, Gutenberg is bored being the only smart guy in his grimy medieval village, where every building has “dirty thatch” on top and rats down below. We know the drill: Blackadder, Monty Python, Knight’s Tale….There’s an evil Monk on the hill, a Jew-hating flower girl in the square, and illiterates on every corner. (Only the one-percenters have books in the “pre-G” era.) Gutenberg sells wine from his own hand-cranked wine press—and in the corner, a busty blonde named “Helvetica” stomps grapes and longs for his love.
How and why does Johnny B. Gut invent the printing press? It’s a bit vague—he wonders what else he could do with a wine press, and bam! But Gutenberg’s genius moment doesn’t please everyone. He wants more than anything to print Bibles for the masses—and the nasty Monk hates the thought of “little people” reading the word of God on their own. “The Bible says what I say,” he snarls—and plots to destroy the machine.
Will Bud and Doug get a Broadway contract? Hell’s bells, will they even survive Act Two? Solis and Sherman gallop around the stage, giddy and breathless, keeping a village of characters in motion—and singing and dancing in their spare time. Choreographer Brittany Jenkins gives them some good moves, and music director Bryce Biffle holds down center stage as third character “Charles”—who isn’t part of the action, but plays a mean keyboard accompaniment.
The only props beyond a dead cat and a cardboard box are a set of baseball caps marked Gutenberg, Monk, Drunk, Anti-Semite, Woman, etc. As the actors “role” over from one persona to another, the hats never stop moving: they’re on, they’re off, they’re stacked on the head like pancakes (it’s a crowd scene); they’re hung in a line like the Rockettes.
In a show like this, there’s nowhere to hide and the actors make all the difference. TART chose wisely—and director Alex Krus (with assistant director Karen Matheny) makes the most of their talents. Sherman has a bounding puppy-dog aura and the wide smile of a guy who’s selling it so hard his face might crack. Solis is a standout as the naughty Monk, his curled Elvis lip and Texas-twang preacher’s voice a delight and a mystery. (Does Germany have a Piney Woods?) They take turns playing Helvetica. (“Is that a font?” asked a lady in the audience.) She’s a scene-stealer, and some of the show’s best fun is watching Sherman and Solis try to outdo each other in coy moves and girlish trills. Who wins? Well, Solis’ beautiful tenor and swivel hips have all the allure a mädchen might need—but Sherman’s hands, obsessively outlining Helvetica’s curvy bits, bring her to laughable, luscious life. It’s a draw, fellas—you can stop now.
As we might guess, the songs are as random as the plot, though some of the lyrics are silly/funny enough to stick. As a selling point, Doug and Bud point out they’ve used all the standard Broadway forms, from the “charm” song about nothing to the “rocker” that sends us off to the restrooms at intermission. A “go to hell” song is diabolically lit by Bryan Douglas, and the costumes…well, there aren’t any.
Looking for Ibsen or Strindberg? This ain’t the place. Gutenberg! The Musical! is a night of ditzy, dippy fun...and right now, that seems like just the ticket.