Before heading out to Cast Aside Productions’ latest show, Gutenberg! The Musical!, I googled Johannes Gutenberg, the man who in 1439 famously introduced movable type — and thus mass literacy — to Europe. I found a possible broken betrothal, a few bankruptcies, and lots of gaps in the historical record — slim pickings, I thought, for a musical. Turns out the young writers of Gutenberg!, Bud Davenport (Kyle Aarons) and Doug Simon (Ryan Walker), did exactly the same thing. And with so few facts to go on, they tell us, they’ve created a “historical fiction” of Gutenberg’s life. That’s putting it mildly. And Bud and Doug are themselves the creations of writers Anthony King and Scott Brown. Which is to say that the true subject of Gutenberg! is not Gutenberg, but the hallowed institution of the Broadway musical itself. Celeste! Green directs a show of impeccably performed send-up at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater.
What we watch, in King and Brown’s Gutenberg!, is Bud and Doug’s pitch of their creation: a two-hour reading of the show performed by the two of them. They wear literally a dozen different hats, which are bright yellow, helpfully labeled (“Gutenberg,” “Drunk #2,” “Rat,” “Beef Fat Trimmer”), and delivered. Bud and Doug are optimistically certain, to an audience that includes Big Broadway Producers. For some reason, they believe that these producers need explained to them such terms as “score,” “book,” “metaphor,” and a dozen or so other terms, and so we also get a guileless, genially pedantic primer on the principles of musical theater, even as they mangle every trope and tradition in its book.
What ensues is comedy at its broadest. Gutenberg, played by Doug, runs a wine press in Schlimmer, Germany. He is beloved by his dumb blonde assistant Helvetica, played in a hat with two braids. There’s an evil, anti-mass-literacy Monk. There are lots of people singing wistfully about how they can’t read. There’s Aarons in a yellow “Friend” hat, cradling a yellow “Dead Baby” hat and cursing a jar labeled “Jelly Beans,” which “Friend” has accidentally fed to his baby in lieu of life-saving medicine because — well, you know.
And the guys who play them — I mean the real guys, Aarons and Walker — are all in with these hijinks, utterly and abidingly. The show, and Green’s snappily paced direction, puts them through their paces. And they nail the guileless, genial pedantry; they nail every style and trope that Bud and Doug butcher — tap dances, Elvis, Chicago sexy, torch songs, you name it. These are very competent actors playing men of stupefying incompetence but endless sincerity, and at this they are remarkable — rosily, haplessly devoted, one mouthing the words tenderly as the other sings.
They also manage some physical comedy that, as stupid as it looks, is often super complicated. A big counterpoint musical number with Gutenberg, Monk, Helvetica, and a chorus of Drunks and Beef Fat Trimmer, for example, means each actor quick-changes between the voices of the characters of the two to four hats they juggle. There’s a beat box. There’s a “chorus line” of yellow hats clipped to a rope. Aarons and Walker own it, exuberantly, exhaustively — and by the end, they must be exhausted.
My only question is Why? Does the institution of musical theater need another send-up, and one this broad and blunt? Probably not, but hats off anyway to the guys who send it.
Gutenberg! The Musical! | By Anthony King and Scott Brown; Directed by Celeste! Green; Music Direction by Rebekkah Willey; Produced by Cast Aside Productions | Portland Ballet Studio Theater, 517 Forest Ave., Portland | Through April 1 | $20 | www.castasideproductions.com
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