A new musical from Hunter Bell, Eli Bolin, and Lee Overtree explores the creation of Found magazine.
In this theatrical era of slavish adaptations and stories built around preexisting song catalogs, shows daring enough to color outside the lines are an endangered species. But Found, a form-exploding new musical at Atlantic Theater Company inspired by Davy Rothbart's magazine of the same name, is one of the few new shows proud enough to buck that trend. Though far from perfect, Found is one hell of a good time. When it works (which is more often than not), the results will blow your mind.
A cult zine which found its way into the zeitgeist in the early 2000s, Found magazine is a publication that prints reader-submitted letters, photos, to-do lists, and other related ephemera, all discarded and later rediscovered. This stage version, with a score by Eli Bolin and a book by Hunter Bell and the show's director, Lee Overtree, is a sort of musical-creation myth, told from the perspective of a presumably fictionalized version of Rothbart.
What makes Found the musical so exciting is the structure Bell and Overtree have devised, one that is vastly different than the status quo. Almost the entirety of the story is told through the words of actual letters submitted to the real Found magazine. These notes provide exposition, character backstory, commentary-driven asides, and even a significant portion of song lyrics. Through projections by Darrel Maloney, audiences can even follow along, observing the way each individual piece of correspondence was written and subsequently interpreted to suit the needs of the plot.
The authors keep the narrative relatively simple in light of the fact that their storytelling method is so surprisingly complex. Davy (Nick Blaemire) is a twentysomething Chicagoan whose string of bad luck comes to an end when he discovers a note mistakenly left on his windshield from a woman excoriating her boyfriend for cheating on her (with a postscript request to "page her later"). Along with his best friends, a big gay teddy bear named Mikey D (Daniel Everidge) and sullen bartender Denise (Barrett Wilbert Weed), Davy starts collecting every single letter he can find. Shortly thereafter, Found magazine is born. At a concert reading of the first issue at Denise's bar, Davy meets Kate (Betsy Morgan), a television producer with whom he shares a surprising connection. As the mag's popularity grows, Kate quickly convinces Davy to pack his bags and take Found to Hollywood, where suddenly his dreams are within reach.
It's a bold move to tell a conventional story in the manner of Found, but almost miraculously, the construct at hand heightens the show's emotional plane. Denise's romantic longing for Davy is expressed by singing a note with a line that reads "You Never Kiss Me." This has a much greater impact because we know somebody somewhere actually wrote those words to a significant other. Overtree's slick direction and Monica Bill Barnes' choreography capitalize on the assets of all of the actors. This is especially evident in the six ensemble members who recite notes directly to the audience. Danny Pudi's rubber-faced expressions draw belly laughs. Molly Pope's line readings are dryly hilarious. Christina Anthony and Andrew Call produce gale-force winds of laughter as a teacher and disruptive student at a production of Johnny Tremain. Orville Mendoza plays flamboyant to the hilt. Sandy Rustin imbues the innocent characters with a hint of sexy playfulness.
Running wild on David Korins' playground of a set with decoupaged walls of letters, these six actors put their personalities on full display. Every single mannerism, each word this ensemble utters, is a gut buster of epic proportions, producing the heartiest of belly laughs. You can't take your eyes off them, yet they never overshadow the leads. Blaemire's boundless energy suits a central character who wants to make it big in the world. Everidge's innate warmth gives Mikey D a whole lot of charm. Weed, with an appealing, Fiona Apple-y voice, breaks your heart with a glance. Morgan owns the intimidating, devil-in-a-pantsuit persona that defines her character. Even when they're provided with less-than-compelling material, these performances are infused with one crucial element: unabashed joy.
The unevenness of Found is more apparent when the notes don't factor into the story. Bolin's original lyrics are never quite as sharp as the jagged-edged words from the letters he sets to music. For a show that prides itself on being weird ("Stay Weird" is in fact the name of the grand finale), Bell and Overtree seem almost intimidated by working the lovable strangeness into the second half. They traverse a disappointingly familiar road in Act 2, where the piece takes on an oddly conventional form that's too thematically reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim's backstage heartbreaker Merrily We Roll Along. The entire show never quite shakes the feeling that there's just a bit too much padding to stretch it into the two-act, two-and-a-half-hour format.
While you can't help but wish Found was perfect, the musical has too much going for it to stay frustrated for long. This show will leave you smiling for days and with a feeling of thankfulness that there are still musical-theater writers in this world willing to take risks.