Paper Mill Playhouse has found its newest nerdy antihero in Josh Cohen. No, not that Josh Cohen. The Other Josh Cohen. The nebbishy shlimazel racked with Jewish guilt and plagued by a black cloud that hovers above his loveless head. The quirky musical comedy recently opened at the 1,200-seat Millburn theater following a successful 2012 off-Broadway run in SoHo Playhouse's 200-seat space. While the jump in venue size has not diluted the production's radiant heart, the upgrade is not exactly what the title character would call "bashert."
Steve Rosen stars as Josh Cohen of lonely Valentine's Days past —particularly last year's Hallmark holiday, marked by an unfortunate robbery that left his apartment swept clean of everything but a pornographic DVD case and the worst of his Neil Diamond CDs. Out of shape, holding onto a 1980s mustache, and too nice for his own good, Josh has become the Charlie Brown of his own life. Luckily, beside him is his future, fitter, mustache-free self (played by David Rossmer) to musically narrate the moment in time where his luck turns around. A routine trip to the mailbox lands him with a $56,000 check made out to the one and only Josh Co— oh wait. Enter "the other Josh Cohen."
Rosen and Rossmer, who also happen to be the musical's coauthors, are the most lovable pair of singing mensches you could hope for. Rossmer dons a guitar and a winning smile as he recalls the story of how he came to be the strapping lad he is today while shamelessly mocking his former awkward self for his most embarrassing blunders. Yet, it's this cringe-worthy demeanor that makes Rosen the clear audience favorite. There are few things more satisfying than cheering for an underdog, and Rosen and Rossmer have constructed one whose resonance can be heard in the constant stream of knowing audience laughs. With every girl who shoots down a pass from a lovelorn Josh (each played by a charming and quick-changing Kate Wetherhead), you can feel the ghosts of hundreds of tragic Bar Mitzvahs past flood the room.
Wetherhead shares the multitude of featured female roles with Hannah Elless, joined by Vadim Feichtner, Cathryn Salamone, and Ken Triwush who take on their own handful of characters while simultaneously serving as the onstage band. The performers have found their own unique rhythm for this rough-around-the-edges musical, capturing the unpolished whimsy exuded by the simple yet authentically heartfelt book and score. Costume designer Jennifer Caprio's dress-up bin of sketch-comedy-style costumes and wigs add to the production's handmade aura. The small but intense flame created, however, is not big enough to fill Paper Mill's 1,200-seat proscenium — nor should it be. The musical's appeal stems from its organic, unpretentious quality. Transplanted from the modest SoHo Playhouse to the stage that launched the Broadway success of Disney's shiny musical Newsies, the production feels as out of place at Paper Mill as a rabbi at Sunday Mass.
Director Ted Sperling has expanded the production slightly since its days at SoHo Playhouse, increasing the size of Josh's pilfered apartment and adding one additional cast member (Salamone) to fill out the stage and take on a few ancillary characters. These modest changes, however, do little to adapt the original production to its new environment. On the other hand, nothing could be more in line with the show's message, for we invest 90 minutes of our time in the ultimate conclusion that Josh Cohen should accept himself for the nerdy schlub that he is. He just needs to find a new apartment.