27-10-2010 3-29-01 PM

Scott Brown and Anthony King are nuts. The evidence is in: Gutenberg, The Musical; a nonsensical parody of the form itself, based around scant info about the inventor of the printing-press.

At its best it’s inventive and very funny; at its worst, just plain silly and, as a result, somewhat tediously self-indulgent. Regardless, it demands much of its players, since this is a three-man show (two, excluding the musical director), with innumerable characters, so the performers wear multiple hats; in this case, literally, by way of baseball caps, emblazoned with the characters names. This device, of course, lends much of the humour (often, the caps are stacked on the head and discarded, one-by-one, with successive appearances of said characters) and also accounts for much of the heavy demands on the players to focus: it’s the danger element which brings the energy thrills, inasmuch as it could, at almost any moment, go horribly wrong, via the confusion matrix.

Originally developed in 2003, Gutenberg played off-Broadway, until transferred to mainstage (the 2005 New York Musical Theatre Festival, to be specific) by a bigtime producer (much satirised in the show). It was the first of Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre’s productions to hit the heights. But its real public debut and world premiere was in London, a year or so later, at Jermyn Street. Those shows featured the authors in the starring roles of Bud and Doug.

Here, however, at Riverside, the writers have been replaced by David Harris and James Millar, with Neil Gooding in the box. Harris is someone I wish the world at large saw more of, since he’s got one of the finest voice for and in musical theatre, per se. To those who move in those circles, he’s regarded as one of the leading men; much lauded, for example, for his role as Chris in Miss Saigon. He has a Mo, Helpmann and Sydney Theatre award on his mantle as documentary proof, if you will, of his supremacy. And his resume is an exercise in tiresome scrolling, unless you’ve an iPad.

Millar is similarly credentialled, but as a writer as well (as but one example, The Hatpin has played highly-successful seasons here and in NYC). Watching either seduces one to believe they were genetically imprinted, designed and purpose-built to play musical theatre. Harris, especially, has a daunting degree of adeptness and adaptability as he jumps from character to character and ludicrous accent to ludicrous accent. He has a frightening facility for effective caricature.

By contrast, Millar is a little more prone, it seems, to lapsing into a nominally British accent, if in doubt, which he sometimes appears to be. It’s a flaw of minor proportions, however, and, again, this was opening night.

Neil Gooding is almost an institution in Australian theatre, as director, manager, administrator, you-name-it.

I don’t know where bees-knees MD Bev Kennedy was last night, but whoever was filling in on piano was a bloody marvel.

The show itself is unashamedly crass and ever-willing to offend the hypersensitive, such as with stereotyped assertions about the character of the German people, not least by way of characters including Anti-Semitic Flowergirl. There’s more than a touch of Mel Brooks about it. In fact, he almost could’ve written it. I say almost, because I, personally, think Mel would’ve been a little more demanding of his comic capacities.

Winepress merchant Johann Gutenberg, incensed by the fact his countrymen can’t read, sets about inventing the printing-press, in his hometown of Schlimmer, not knowing his secret admirer, the big-breasted dullard Helvetica, has been inveigled to thwart his dream and stop the press, by mad, evil monk, Monk (of inscrutably and inexplicably Asian derivation, with the inevitably attendant martial arts credentials). Monk has a penchant for sharpening his pencil.

After she sticks a pencil in the delicate machine, reducing it to rubble, Helvetica reflects she Might As Well Go To Hell. it doesn’t get much more poignant. Well, as poignant as this musical gets.

The really clever, biting lines tend to be a little thin on the ground, but one has to be impressed by little (sometimes deliciously evil) touches, like representing a chorus line with baseball caps strung along a rope, or the blonde plaits attached to Helvetica’s. Or the fact roofs are always made of dirty thatch. And the encounter with the devil in the Grimm Haunted German Wood.

Beyond that, the real genius comes in the level of performance which, from what I’ve heard of the original, is easily surpassing, since Millar and, especially, Harris, go to great lengths to distinguish and differentiate characters over-and-above the tending-to-lame gimmickry of baseball (mad)cappery.

By dint of local performance standards then, this might just be world’s best practice Gutenberg. We mightn’t have invented the printing press but, blimey, we can sure give a good reading.

Curtain Call rating: A-

The details: Gutenberg, The Musical plays just eight shows until Saturday, October 30 at Riverside Theatres. Tickets via the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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