This could also be a case of the show
seeking the actors, instead of the more usual other way around. Karl
Gregory, a 2001 Syracuse University Drama Department graduate, had been
something of a star at the Kitchen, winning one of the first Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) awards for playing 37 roles in Becky Mode’s Fully Committed
in 2005. Unhinged athletic comedy has been a specialty, but he also
moved on to roles off-Broadway. And last year he went for a master’s
degree at the Brown University/Trinity Repertory Consortium, where he
also appeared in The Importance of Being Earnest at Providence’s Trinity Repertory. Gutenberg! is a homecoming.
And lanky New York City-based Tyrone
Mitchell Henderson comes with extensive professional credits ranging
from Suzan-Lori Parks to Shakespeare opposite Patrick Stewart as well
as several appearances at Syracuse Stage. Family ties to upstate New
York and an obvious fondness for the Kitchen venue bring him back where
he can do literally anything from a squeaky-voiced woman to a
deep-breathing James Earl Jones.
Director Rachel Lampert reports having known of Gutenberg! by
unknowns Scott Brown and Anthony King for a few years, but found the
show more compelling when it won three awards at the New York Music
Theater Festival (NYMF, or “Nympha”) in 2006. Lampert knew it needed
superlative performers but also rapidly expressive movement. A former
choreographer, Lampert transforms Gutenberg! into something
resembling a dance show. So physical is the production that if all the
words were obliterated, 75 percent of the laughs would still be there.
us how to put together a Broadway musical from the moment of first
inspiration. In about two hours this means spoofery of perhaps 200
aspects of the genre from casting choices, audience expectations and
song lyrics, to thematic pretensions and dance routines. Many of these
gags are fleeting; for starters, there’s a contrived exuberance of
putting an exclamation mark in the title, like George M! or Mamma Mia! So why not put in two?
Taking on the personae of two bland,
Anglo collaborators, Bud Davenport (Gregory) and Doug Simon
(Henderson), the boys explain what leads them to Johann Gutenberg, the
15th-century inventor of the printing press. It’s not just that
printing and literacy revolutionized Western culture (a big deal with
late media critic Marshall McLuhan), but rather that a Google search
reveals almost nothing is known of his life. This prompts the boys to
write historical fiction, or as Henderson’s Doug tells it with a
cautionary swoon, “Fiction that’s true.”
Part of the time the boys are giving a
“reading” of a show, the authors might try to win over financial
backers. And part of the time it’s a candid classroom lesson, as if the
two authors are trying to explain secrets of the trade to a roomful of
inattentive community college students.
The setting is the village of Schlimmer,
“a tiny town like what you’d read about in travel books—or murder
mysteries.” No one speaks German or even has a German accent, but
lower-class figures tend to talk in Cockney, like chorus members of Oliver! Still,
the German locale is an invitation for a weighty theme: the Holocaust.
Musicals that want to be taken seriously have to treat with something
of lasting importance, like the Revolution of 1848 in Les Miserables. So even though World War II might be centuries off, characters keep popping up speaking in the tired tropes of anti-Semitism.
It’s more than Gregory and Henderson’s
talent that lets us know who different characters are. They wear
different colored baseball caps that bear the names of characters in
prominent white letters. All the hats lie on a table at rear, so that
Gregory and Henderson may pull up what they need at any time.
Most often Henderson wears the light
blue cap of Gutenberg, but other ones get traded back and forth so that
the anti-Semite might be Henderson in one scene and Gregory in the
next. Unaccountably, this German village contains a venerable, Uncle
Remus-like figure known as Old Black Narrator who shares folk wisdom.
Gregory plays him most of the time, but Henderson, an African-American,
gets a whack at him, too.
A plot emerges in the first act, with
both a villain and a love interest. Gutenberg finds himself attracted
to a beautiful blonde named Helvetica (Gregory in golden cap), who’s in
charge of a wine press. Interrupting his courting, Gutenberg sees that
the press could be switched from grapes to print, allowing him to put
Bibles into the hands of every person. This would lead to widespread
literacy, which angers the Monk (Gregory in a black cap). Most
fittingly, the Monk speaks in a cold, menacing voice, a cross between
Vincent Price and Henry Daniell. Hoping to retain his unique franchise
on literacy, the Monk plots to thwart Gutenberg’s progress.
Lampert’s frequent collaborator Larry Pressgrove has taken on the music direction of Gutenberg! His
assistant Thomas Jefferson Peters actually fingers the ivories in
Ithaca, but it is Pressgrove’s direction that keeps the score light and
fast, spoofing and parodying music from shows of recent years while
driving the dance numbers and garnishing the sassy lyrics.
Gutenberg! The Musical! might
sound like inspired fluff, an aggrandized skit that grew into a
full-length feature. But it takes two of the most sustained
performances of the year to keep us laughing for so long.
This production runs through July 12. See Times Table for information.