Dallas — Fine performances by an ensemble of seven actors, directed by Bruce R. Coleman, doesn’t save the weak material in Paul Kalburgi’s Broadway or Bust, the new chamber musical which premiered Friday in a production by Pegasus Theatre at the Bath House Cultural Center.
The cozy, unpretentious space at the Bath House is promising setting for theatrical innovation, with an inherent immediacy in the small thrust stage. The intimate space likewise lends itself to unfettered acoustic performance; the expressive range of a single piano (in this case, onstage as part of the action) matches and supports the unamplified human voice.
While the space calls for innovation and immediacy, the work never overcomes clichés and easy endings. The plot centers around a fictional, off-community theater group in Dallas (The Plush Pile Players, since they work in an empty carpet warehouse) on the verge of financial collapse. The situation is further complicated when, just days before the opening of their production of a failed off-off-Broadway musical titled Broadway Glitz, the company’s stalwart and devoted director Jan (LisaAnne Haram) trips on a toaster. For some reason — the first of many holes in the plot — the resultant broken ankle renders her incapable of further directing.
Hence, the arrival of Percy Scott (Chuck E. Moore) to save the day, claiming, in an impressive résumé, that he “directed on Broadway.” Scott proceeds to destructively rewrite the script while insulting the actors, who for some reason continue to play along with him. Two hours later, everyone either dies or transforms into a better, wiser, person, and all (well, most) live happily ever. Maybe.
Kalburgi’s score (he also wrote lyrics and the book), full of imitation ragtime and old-fashioned Tin Pan Alley-isms, exists in a time-warp that got stuck about 1940; one song, “Fried Chicken,” is memorable for about one verse before running out of ideas. Still, the cast carried on bravely on opening night. Music director Mark Miller managed to find momentum and steadiness in the score, performing on the onstage piano.
Mindy Bell as Cynthia, an ambitious amateur with several part-time jobs, children, and no husband, presents the one standout voice in the cast. Mary-Margaret Pyeatt creates the snobby Celia as a perfect take-off of Katharine Hepburn; Ellen Eberhardt makes the most of her role as the company flunky (and sometime actress) Mollie, pulling off the trick of being a good actress and dancer portraying a bad actress and dancer. (Her comical maneuvering of an electrical cord and small fog machine during the romantic duet of Bell and Jeff Poteat is indeed chuckle-worthy.) Moore has a one-dimensional role as the imperious Percy Scott, but pulls it off nicely, while Nancy Lamb likewise enlivens the role of Flo, an aging actress whose claim to fame was as an understudy to Angela Lansbury in Gypsy. Andi Allen produces entertainingly klutzy choreography.
Maxim Overton designed the minimal sets, and Michael Robinson produced sometimes clever costumes — having overworked Cynthia show up for rehearsal in Whataburger and Walmart employee uniforms is one of a few clever and whimsical touches in what is ultimately a harmless production of a hackneyed plot that we’ve seen many variations of, often with better writing and music.