Peter Bartlett and David Pittu in
What's That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling
(© Doug Hamilton)
Peter Bartlett and David Pittu in
What's That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling
(© Doug Hamilton)
Billed as "a comedy with vocal selections," What's That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling, now making its world premiere at the Atlantic Theatre Stage 2, is an amiable and modestly amusing one-act about a fictional music theatre composer with relentless determination, unmitigated ego -- and not much talent. While the show features a delicious performance from its star David Pittu (who is also the playwright, lyricist, and co-director with Neil Pepe) it's essentially an extended one-joke skit that wears thin before its full 80-minute running time runs out.

The show takes place during the taping of a cable TV talk show called Composers and Lyricists Of Tomorrow (CLOT, for short; one of the the many jokey acronyms that are the highlights of the script). The pursed-lipped, fusspot host Leonard Swag (suitably and entertainingly played by Peter Bartlett a few degrees warmer than his delectably droll usual) helps Sterling walk us through decades of the composer's unproduced oeuvre, which includes a musical based on the movie Private Benjamin, a song cycle about New York which gives this show its title, and a song cycle about September 11th called "That Goddamned Day."

Although Pittu's portrayal of the undertalented composer typically invites us to laugh at the character's failures, there is also evident affection in the performance (and on the page) for the character's relentless determination and steadfast belief in the art of musical theater. Pittu may play Jacob as a fool who is self-involved and eternally ready for his close-up, but the portrayal is ultimately more kind than mean-spirited.

The Inside The Actors Studio-style interview, in which Sterling chats with his somewhat fawning host about his life, his craft, and the state of the theater in general, is full of references to obscure real-life musical flops and to Broadway message boards. Those bits are likely to be especially fun for longtime theater fans and insiders, but others may not get the references.

As for the songs (with music by Randy Redd, and mostly sung by Pittu), they're all appropriately overindulgent and cringe-worthy. Assumedly by design and in keeping with the joke, they also sound essentially alike -- a conceit that soon becomes fatiguing. It doesn't help that the show's funniest number, "He Died Inside Me" -- which musicalizes a post-coital heart attack -- is also its first.

The last number is an extended excerpt from Sterling's big long-awaited Broadway debut: A crassly commercial corporate-sponsored celebration of consumerism called "Shopping Out Loud" in which three fresh-faced young performers (played appealingly by Brandon Goodman, Matt Schock, and Helene Yorke) sing and dance in praise of one retail chain after another. At long last, the show comes closest to making an overt statement about the current state of musical theater. Is anyone listening?