The 24 Hour Musicals: Theater Review

Ben Folds 24 Hour Play - H 2013

Ben Folds 24 Hour Play - H 2013

DIY Glee is almost a smash.

The cabaret experiment, an offshoot of New York's long-running 24 Hour Plays, featured cast members from "30 Rock," "Smash," "Friday Night Lights" and "Saturday Night Live," along with musician Ben Folds.

NEW YORK -- The premise of The 24 Hour Musicals is simple: collect a diverse group of actors, directors, writers and musicians; divide them into four groups and give them 24 hours to create a one-act musical to perform the following night. An improv theater cabaret, the project is an off-shoot of the long-running 24 Hour Plays, produced by The Exchange to benefit The Orchard Project, its theater workshop. Now in its fifth year, performances were staged Monday night at The Gramercy Theater in Manhattan.

Following an introduction by the artistic director, Ari Edelson, a short film introduced some of the participants and allowed a brief glimpse at the whimsical process of casting and writing. Shot the night before, the film illustrated the manic nature of developing each of the four musicals. Actors were asked to contribute a prop of some kind, audition with a song and demonstrate a hidden talent; all of which to be utilized by the writers and musicians to help craft a book and songs.

Even with top prices of $500 it was unlikely anyone expected Sondheim. What they got was four short musical pieces, roughly 15 minutes each, long on comedy but light on depth. Given the nature of the production this was to be expected and the audience beamed in support. The stage was spare, with a five-piece band reading from sheet music and flanked by a video screen which introduced the title of each piece. Props were minimal to give the actors more room to move.

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The first show, Shotgun Wedding (book by Mike Lewand Rehana Mirza; music and lyrics by Sam Willmott) was a bawdy tale of a proud, but overwhelmed single “super mother” (Julie Reiber) gallivanting about with nursing baby in a sling. The song was a silly, bouncy number (sort of Marvin Hamlisch goes to hell) first as a solo, then a duet as Reiber was joined by Tonya Pinkins, playing a friend who tries to convince the super mom to get married to alleviate her situation. Her suitors were played by Maulik Pancholy (Jonathon from 30 Rock) and Julian Fleisher. Pancholy, playing an IT guy sang “Maulik The Geek” an amusing ditty about a computer nerd heavy on sexual innuendo. The payoff, however, comes when the super mom chooses Pinkins to be her partner and dissolves into ribald excess when Pinkins embraces the super mom, and appears to have nursed from her.

But That Would Be Wrong (book by Kim Diaz; music and lyrics by Scott Richards) concerned a young girl eager to live with her raunchy aunt, a woman troubled by her callused feet. The aunt, played by the substantial cabaret singer Bridget Everett, limped around, singing about her calluses. Though the song was not memorable, Ms. Everett was -- a vocal powerhouse, she is a tremendous presence with a disarming manner beloved by the crowd. Ryann Redmond (from Bring it On: The Musical) was particularly amusing as the niece, a high-spirited teen anxious to find a new life away from her alcoholic mother (a slurring, campy Deidre Lovejoy from The Wire). The piece demonstrated the limitations of conceiving and staging a production in such short time however, the ad-libbing of the actors (Redmond: “I really wish they’d start the music!”) and watching them fumble is part of the charm of The 24 Hour Musicals.

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Following a short intermission, the lights were dimmed for Three Princes (book by Brian Crawley; music and lyrics by Michael Patrick Walker). Featuring Taran Killam from Saturday Night Live; Anthony Rapp from Rent and Wesley Taylor (NBC’s Smash) as three princes on a mission to impress a princess (Alicia Witt, Friday Night Lights). Killam drew laughs yelling expletives and for his dubious dance moves; but Rapp got one of the biggest laughs as the nerdiest of the princes (Taylor: “I slew a dragon!”; Killam: “I slew a bigger dragon!”; Rapp: “I made her dinner.”). The sketch took an odd turn with the appearance of “Guitar Pat” (Pat McRoberts) as a guitar-wielding goof singing about his “Instrument of Love.” But the Rock of Ages-influenced song drew cheers, as the did the gyrations of McRoberts, who then gave his guitar to Killam and ran off with Taylor. Witt appeared as the princess to wrap up the piece, but the silly antics of Killam,Taylor and McRoberts prompted the biggest cheers.

The last piece of the night, “Losing It” (book by Jonathan Marc Sherman; music and lyrics by Ben Folds) was a simple number starring Josh Lawson (House of Lies) as a man concerned about his fiancee’s mysterious request for him “to give something up.” At a bar with his two pals (Steve Rosen and John Cariani) the three men contemplate the mystery. Witt arrives and she and Lawson engage in a back and forth duet somewhat reminiscent of Meatloaf and Ellen Foley singing “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” (one wonders if Folds is a fan of Bat Out of Hell). The thing Lawson must give up is his mustache, which, to wild cheers from the crowd, he actually shaved off (with help from the cast and an appearance by Folds playing a melodica). The payoff -- Witt doesn’t like it -- is wan; but after the piece finished the cast of all the shows assembled to take their bows.

While the television star power contributed to the gaiety of the event, Everett was the standout and Folds demonstrated his potential for The Great White Way. After Cyndi Lauper’s Tony nod, and given his unique career, could The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner: The Musical be so far-fetched?

For readers interested in learning more about the 24 Hour process, The Exchange and The Orchard have put together a documentary from past events, now available on DVD and for download on iTunes.

Twitter: @THRMusic