In-Jokes for the Musical In-Crowd: “[title of show]” at Northlight

The meta-musical isn’t all that new an idea.


“Kiss Me, Kate” did the show-within-a-show thing years ago, and “Urinetown: the Musical!” brought tongue-in-cheek self-referential charm to a dystopian tale. But Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell’s “[title of show]” (lower case intentional) may remind you of a more tuneful version of Sally Draper’s monologue in “Mad Men” about looking at the picture of the Land o’ Lakes Indian maiden – you’re looking at a picture of her holding a picture of her holding a picture, etc., etc., etc.

The conceit for this 2004 piece, which became a breakout hit at the first New York Musical Theatre Festival and eventually wound up on Broadway, is that two guys – Jeff and Hunter – are trying to come up with a new musical in three weeks to submit to a new-musicals festival. With the help of their actor friends, Susan and Heidi, they pull it off, and end up with off-Broadway and Broadway offers. Oh, the show within the show? It’s about two guys named Jeff and Hunter who write a show for a musicals festival in three weeks with two female friends named Susan and Heidi, leading to ouroboros-like numbers such as “I Am Playing Me.”

As directed by Peter Amster for Northlight Theatre, the production has plenty of loopy charm – but those charms tend to wear thin over the intermissionless 90-plus minutes. It’s not the fault of the sparkling cast, including cabaret favorite McKinley Carter in her Northlight debut as wisecracking Susan, belter extraordinaire Christine Sherrill as vulnerable Heidi, and Matthew Crowle and Stephen Schellhardt as manic Hunter (who writes the show’s book) and somewhat-reserved Jeff (composer and lyricist), respectively.

It’s simply that Bowen and Bell’s cutesy-pie, lookit-us-putting-on-a-show-about-putting-on-a-show antics don’t have much more depth than a sketch revue. That said, it certainly provides a steady stream of treats for diehard musical fans that crave jokes about Broadway it-girl Sutton Foster (who makes a cameo on an answering-machine message) and long-lost Great White Way turkeys such as “Henry, Sweet Henry.”

Despite some genuine laughs, I found myself wondering just what, exactly, was supposed to be so inventive and hilarious in this piece. The late-breaking sentimentality of the squabbling quartet trying to find, as one song puts it, “A Way Back to Then” – “then” meaning the early thrill of creating work together — would be more affecting if the end product itself weren’t one long sustained (and self-serving) in-joke.  But “Glee” and “Smash” fans may have a more favorable take on this musical hall of mirrors.

“[title of show]” runs through June 10 at Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Tickets are $25-$65 at 847-673-6300 or northlight.org.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
Photo: l-r are Stephen Schellhardt as “Jeff,” McKinley Carter as “Susan,” Doug Peck as musical director “Larry,” Matthew Crowle as “Hunter,” and Christine Sherrill as “Heidi.”