Jay C. Cotner and Jacob Brown wear many hats.
I mean literally: These two workhorses who bring Gutenberg! The Musical! to hilarious life actually wear hats—black-and-white baseball caps, to be exact—to help us differentiate a host of characters in their play within the play.
Arizona Onstage Productions, which brings us this silly slice of fun by Scott Brown and Anthony King, has a record of seeking out shows which push the musical-theater envelope. No, that's not right: The company finds shows which don't even come in envelopes. A couple of months ago, Arizona Onstage unleashed upon our fair city The Great American Trailer Park Musical (which will return for a couple of shows later in April). The company also brought us Jewtopia and Assassins, a musical—yes, a musical—about the killers or would-be killers of American presidents. The troupe, headed by artistic director Kevin Johnson, has a seriously silly/cynical sense of the amusing and, fortunately, the good-natured and suitably warped talent to let it rip.
Doug (Cotner) and Bud (Brown) have put their hopeful hearts and spirited souls into the development of Gutenberg!, and the production is an attempt to woo a big-time producer. In an utterly absurd but totally guileless way, they act out the story of how the printing press came to be. They explain that since there is really little known about Johann Gutenberg, they have taken certain liberties to create a piece of historical fiction. "That's fiction that's true," they explain.
I lost count of how many characters they create for their plot, but I do know that Doug and Bud, and hence Cotner and Brown, play every last one of them, sometimes several at once. The aforementioned hats show us the characters' names or designations, and sometimes the hats are stacked with impressive height upon the heads of these gamers. There's Monk, the evil churchman opposed to the idea of everybody being able to read; Helvetica, Gutenberg's lovely assistant who is in love with her boss, although he's clueless about this; and so much more. There are Drunk 1 and Drunk 2 and Woman and Another Woman and Dead Baby and the Little Anti-Semite Girl. (This does take place in Germany, after all; to ensure that their piece has the proper gravitas, the co-creators feel that the issue of anti-Semitism must be duly raised.)
Of course, all of this is more than a little funny as the two spin their tale and sing their songs, which, although they have the silly tone of the plot and characters, are really not much more outrageous than your standard musical-theater fare.
Since this is a "reading" of their script, with suggestions of characters and sets and special effects, Bud and Doug also share a bit of the behind-the-scenes process of developing what they are so sure is a masterpiece in the making. They point out that such and such song is known in musical theater as a "charm song," and that this scene is foreshadowing—all very technical, of course. Wow, do these guys know their stuff, or what?
Director Annette Hillman has guided this genuinely goofy exercise in excess with just the right proportions of abandon and restraint. With a set devoid of, well, a set, the actors work with a couple of cardboard boxes, a small stool or two, a table (which is the home of the hats) and a pencil—trust me, it's critical—to create their magic. And Khris Dodge on keyboards does a masterful job with both his accompaniment and musical direction (although his volume sometimes competes unfavorably with the guys' voices).
But Cotner and Brown are the ones ultimately responsible for selling this silly thing, and I dare you not to be seduced by these two. Brown—bespectacled and slender in his baggy chinos, argyle vest and bowtie—is ubiquitous, constantly moving and morphing into the characters for which Bud is responsible. Cotner, meanwhile, has no trouble carrying Doug's share of the character load, and he's just so darned enthusiastic and earnest that when he engages directly with the audience, his smile consumes his face. This show would really stink up the place if the actors stumbled at all in their commitment to the shenanigans, but Cotner and Brown waver not an inch.
It's hard not to compare Gutenberg! to [title of show], which Arizona Theatre Company produced a couple of months ago. The two pieces are similar in many ways—but ATC's approach resulted in a production with a serious identity crisis, which sucked a lot of the charm right out of the show.
There's no such identity issue here. Gutenberg! The Musical! knows exactly what it is—and isn't. Totally true to its creators' intentions, it is wacky, sweet, creative and silly. It's about as far from "serious" theater as you can get; it's seriously funny.