GUTENBERG! The Musical! (Really)
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
By: Quill Theatre
At: Libby S. Gottwald Playhouse, Dominion Energy Center, 600 E. Grace Street, RVA 23219
Performances: October 12 – November 3, 2018, Thursdays-Saturdays @8:00pm & Sundays @2:00pm.
Ticket Prices: $32 Adults; $27 Seniors; $22 Students & RVATA Members (with ID)
Info: (804) 353-4241 or quilltheatre.org
Gutenberg! The Musical! is a play-within-a-play written by Anthony King and Scott Brown who present their comedic farce as a backer’s audition of an historical fiction about the German printer Johannes Gutenberg. Got that? Stay with me, because it doesn’t get any simpler.
Chris Hester and Paul S. Major play the authors Doug Simon and Bud Davenport, who are pitching their musical in hopes of finding someone to back them in a Broadway run. The show is hyped as big, splashy, and better than all others of its genre. But they have no actors, just a few props and a collection of baseball hats with the names of all the characters (e.g., Drunk #1, Drunk #2, Mother, Daughter, Gutenberg, Monk, Helvetica, Old Black Narrator). Doug and Bud switch hats as they rotate through the characters, sometimes stacking them for efficiency, or wearing one on their head and one on each hand to simulate crowd scenes. They string hats on a line, held up with the assistance of two audience members, and are even able to create a chorus line. Musical numbers from honkytonk to rock ‘n roll and romantic ballads are interspersed with puns, explanations of musical theater terminology, such as the definition of a metaphor, an example of a charm song, and a running gag recurring line involving dirty thatched roofing.
Early in the play the authors admit that their “research” consisted of a brief Google search, the result of which was that there is very little known about the life and times of Johann Gutenberg. So. . .they decided to just make up stuff, hence the historical fiction. Among the things they made up is the name of Gutenberg’s fictitious love interest, Helvetica and, apparently, the name of the town, Schlimer – a word that is suspiciously similar to schleimer, which loosely means “ass-kisser.” There is also a totally unrelated connection to the Holocaust, and several unkind and politically incorrect references to stupidity. Monk, the evil monk, calls Helvetica a “dumb German anti-Semite,” and Helvetica later sings that “history is paved with the hearts of the stupid.” Oh, and Gutenberg starts out as a winemaker, who handily turns his wine press into a printing press, quite forgetting to tell his lovely, love-truck assistant that she can stop tromping on her bucket of grapes.
Hester and Major, of necessity, remain on stage the entire time, and they are accompanied by Charlene (musical director Leilani Fenick). Both are enthusiastic, energetic, and affable, as Jan Guarino’s direction and choreography keep everything moving along at a fast clip. The eighteen or so people in the Sunday matinee audience seemed to have a great time. There was lots of laughter and applause, and a woman I chatted with during intermission made a point of telling me, completely unsolicited, that she was very happy that she could clearly hear and understand all the lyrics – something that is often a problem in musicals.
There’s just one major problem. Rather than humorous, or zany, I just found the whole thing silly. It tries too hard and, at least for me, there was no “aha” moment that made it all worthwhile. I don’t care that it isn’t big and splashy, that there are just two actors, no sets, and no laser lights, but, I’m sorry, Doug and Bud, Gutenberg! The Musical! isn’t better than Cats!!
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Photos from Quill Theatre’s Facebook page