NEW YORK – If the breathtaking punctuation in the title wasn’t a clue, “Gutenberg! The Musical!” It begins with a joke that the James Earl Jones Theater is “the only Broadway theater named after a Sith Lord.”
If that tickles your geeky funny bud, you’ll probably be on board all night long with the double act of Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad, a self-conscious knockoff of Elder Price and Elder Cunningham from “The Book of Mormon,” except for Rannells and Gad, now, 15 They play Doug and Bud, lovable New Jerseyans who dream of writing and starring in a new Broadway musical about Johannes Gutenberg, the Jeff Bezos of 10th-century Germany.
Bud spent the inheritance left by his uncle, who died in a skydiving accident, on this quixotic endeavor. Doug sold his house. That amount of money could only afford three live musicians, or, they say, half of a New Jersey wedding band known as The Middlesex Six.
I guess there’s something meta about a musical about a man who horrified the world by exposing the possibility that mass communication and copying could be so familiar and derivative. The real joke here is that we all attend a supporting audition where newbie writers will play every role in the show, while imagining that an actual producer will also attend, thus allowing them to realize their dreams of moving on to a Broadway theatre. , of course, where we all sit and know where everything is heading.
If you’ve never had the pleasure, it’s also a key part of the equally self-referential plot of “Spamalot,” the Broadway revival of this much more modest satirical work by Anthony King and Scott Brown. .
Except for a few stupid songs like “Gutenberg! The Musical!” relies mostly on the harmony of two opposite stars for its appeal, one a down-to-earth but serious alpha male, the other a dork with a surprisingly deep emotional well. A little pre-show love for all things key to a good time and many different genres and a willingness to be impressed by the comic actors playing the part. A recurring joke here — funny, of course — is that the two men like to wear baseball caps bearing their characters’ names. By the end of the night, the show looks like the storefront of Lids store at the mall.
Rannells and Gad are, of course, consummate professionals in their shared and collective wheelhouse here. The immensely talented Gad in particular has the ability to change the tone of the show on a dime, and any emotional impact that comes your way in a night of mostly jokes for its own sake comes from him, especially since. The writings here come with an abrasive and sometimes shocking satirical tone.
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You certainly wouldn’t describe “Gutenberg!” As a sweet show, it was far more original than one might say. In a time of moral theatrics when edgy satire can be too dangerous for the writer, King and Brown certainly have admirable courage. But I also thought the comedy was overly crude at points; Humor will likely divide audiences, as was the case with “Beetlejuice,” which performed better with actual audiences than insiders and critics. I didn’t laugh too hard at some of the odd jokes about anti-Semitism either; the show would be well advised to revisit these in light of current events.
“Gutenberg! The Musical!” sure knows how to structure narrative gags that are full of little slivers of emotion followed by jokes structured to cut through the treacle. And it has a little natural climax that’s worth waiting for, and that’s the kind of off-Broadway entertainment familiar to anyone who enjoys improv and sketch comedy. Broadway at least finds a way to justify its prices.
But the truth here is that this is a show based on two talented comic actors and their contrasting relationships. These two stars could do this sort of thing in their sleep if they wanted to, and I suspect their challenge will come from messing with each other and keeping things fresh.
If they feel free to deviate from the script a bit on most nights, it will at least be fun for their fans to watch.
at the James Earl Jones Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., New York; gutenbergbway.com
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.