Friday, September 28, 2007

Review – Austentatious (From the Top Productions and the New York Musical Theatre Festival)

Stage Buzz Review by Byrne Harrison

There are two shows called Austentatious currently playing at the Julia Miles Theater. One of them is a horrifyingly bad adaptation of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ being put on at a local community theatre by a group of mediocre thespians. The other is the fun musical about the birth of that production with music and lyrics by Matt Board and Joe Slabe, and book by Board, Slabe, Jane Caplow, Kate Galvin and Luisa Hinchliff. The former is as deliciously terrible as the latter is clever and amusing.

Austentatious the musical follows the birth of Austentatious the play being performed by the Central Riverdale Amateur Players. Their long-time creative director has left to do bigger and better things – dinner theatre – leaving the company without a leader. Hoping to fill that gap is Emily (Stacey Sargeant), a dancer/playwright/behind the scenes director, who has written Austentatious and is staging it with the help of Dominic (Stephen Bel Davies), a pretentious, wannabe director who has little knowledge of the theatre and even less of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (he owns the DVD and is shocked to discover they made a book out of it).

The production is plagued by problems from the beginning. Only five people show up for the audition: Emily, who plans to star in the show she’s written; Jessica (Lisa Asher), a veteran of the Central Riverdale Amateur Players; Blake (Paul Wyatt), a young man with a bit of a drug habit who is using the play to get out of his group therapy sessions; and a couple, Lauren and David (Amy Goldberger and George Merrick) – she plans to play Elizabeth and he’s there to help her, not to audition. David, of course, ends up as Mr. Darcy, while Emily is cast as Elizabeth by her boyfriend, Dominic. Watching over them all is Sam (Stephanie D’Abruzzo), the stage manager. She is above the egos and the in-fighting. She only wants to see the show succeed.

What follows is a little bit of Waiting for Guffman with some Noises Off thrown in. Along the way there are some wonderful songs, a love story, a full-fledged meltdown by the overworked and underappreciated Sam, and a dance-off between Elizabeth Bennet and her sister, the Pirate Queen, on 42nd Street in New York City (seriously). It’s a fun, silly, crazy adventure that culminates in an awful, but wildly amusing production of the play.

For a musical, however, Austentatious seems a little light on music. Board and Slabe’s songs are good, especially Sam’s “I Manage,” David’s sweet “By the Book,” and the full company number “Tech,” which shows the technical rehearsal before the play opens. But several of the songs merely peer into the characters’ inner lives and motivations, which is interesting, I suppose, but in most cases doesn’t cover anything that the book and the actors themselves haven’t conveyed.

In addition, it’s worth noting that the most hilarious portion of the musical, the actual performance of Austentatious has no musical numbers, other than the dance-off.

Acting is solid throughout the production, with particularly good work by Stephanie D’Abruzzo, Stephen Bel Davies, and Paul Wyatt.

Austentatious, like most of the musicals in the festival, shares its space with other productions. Given that limitation, set designer Jesse Poleshuck and lighting designer Jeff Croiter do an excellent job. Also commendable is Sarah Maiorino’s costume design. The costumes for the play within the play were marvelous, and the street clothes worn by the actors seemed to fit each one’s personality to a tee.

Austentatious is a fun musical with a few flaws that might bother critics, but probably won’t interfere with your enjoyment of the show. It’s well worth a look.

Music and Lyrics by Matt Board and Joe Slabe
Book by Matt Board, Jane Caplow, Kate Galvin, Luisa Hinchliff, and Joe Slabe
Directed by Mary Catherine Burke
Musical Director: Matt Castle
Choreographer: Rhonda Miller
Asst. Choreographer: Jennifer Littlefield
Stage Manager: Leah McVeigh
ASM/Prop Master: Marianne Ward
Scenic Design: Jesse Poleshuck
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Lighting Programmer: Ku’uipo Curry
Costume Design: Sarah Maiorino
Costume Assistant: Elizabeth Ektefaei
Technical Supervisor: Nathan Watson
Set Construction: No Time for Love Productions, Ken Larson Company
Publicity: Sun Productions, Inc.
Producing Consultant: David Carpenter

Featuring Lisa Asher (Jessica), Stephen Bel Davies (Dominic), Stephanie D’Abruzzo (Sam), Amy Goldberger (Lauren), George Merrick (David), Stacey Sargeant (Emily), Paul Wyatt (Blake)

Featured Musicians: Matt Castle (Piano), Christopher Downes (Bass), Michael Klopp (Drums)

Julia Miles Theater
424 W. 55th Street

Closes Sunday, September 29th