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The Audience

The Transport Group's nearly perfect new musical -- with a 46-strong cast -- is cheerful, funny, touching, and ultimately awe-inspiring.

The cast of The Audience
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Rita Gardner is a lucky charm. For the past few years, she's been doing a one-woman musical revue in which she samples shows that have played Off-Broadway. Her intention is to note that downtown has been an indispensable springboard for musicals that propel the tradition forward and often break new ground.

The original Girl of The Fantasticks now adds to her charm bracelet: She's in the 46-strong (count 'em -- 46!) cast of The Audience, a nearly perfect tuner created by a team whose names make a list longer than Paul Bunyan's arm and leg. Here's a project with book, music, and lyrics by 28 (count 'em -- 28!) talented people, among them Michael John LaChiusa, Jenny Giering, and Steve Marzullo. It was developed by Adam Bock, with "additional development by Mark Campbell and David Pittu." Costume designer Kathryn Rohe worked with two associates and three assistants.

Let's toss the first, most fragrant bouquet at Transport Group creative artistic director Jack Cummings III, who conceived this cheerful, funny, touching, ultimately awe-inspiring show and is its director. (There are four assistant directors: Zach Altman, Erika Christensen, Chase Tyler Kniffen, and Peter Sanfilippo. And, boy oh boy, has that five-person team done a first-rate job!). It seems to have been Cummings' bright idea to follow up last year's razor-sharp revival of LaChiusa's First Lady Suite with a newly thunk-up comedy-drama about the audience of a musical -- a musical that apparently failed to overwhelm the critics but has entertained many theatergoers during its soon-to-end run.

As The Audience begins, two ushers arrive -- one a veteran (Tina Johnson), the other a novice (Monica Russell). Then the nervous playwright, Jeremy Lane Shawn (Jack Donahue) grabs a seat to watch his baby. Within minutes, there's milling about by 43 others who are cleverly contrived to represent your typical tuner crowd. You know the types: three obsessed fans (Joanna Parson, Michele Ragusa, Mark Aldrich); two gay couples (Craig Wells and Robert DuSold, Jonathan Hammond and Matt Farnsworth); four middle-aged Jewish mavens (Marta Curro, John Braden, Mary Ellen Ashley, Tracy Rosten); a family of Southern tourists (Matt Nowosielski, Kim Lindsay, Nicole Bocchi, Eamon Foley) who think they've been sent to a G-rated family show but discover that this is not the case when two men on stage kiss; a pair of actresses (Jenni Frost, Becca Ayers); a bickering buppy couple (Gerry McIntyre, Thursday Farrar); a would-be singer in attendance with her possibly abusive father and long-suffering mother (Rosemary Loar, Tom Ligon, Barbara Andres); three Japanese gal pals (Yuka Takara, MaryAnn Hu, Mika Saburi); a trio of office co-workers (Natalie Toro, Celia Tackaberry, Shannon Polly); a couple on a first date (Donna Lynne Champlin, James Weber); and a couple who meet and go all the way during the show (Dee Hoty, Duke LaFoon). Yes, and there's more where they came from...

Though admittedly a musical put together by committee, The Audience beats the odds -- brilliantly. By the time the intermissionless piece ends, the battalion of scribes has transmitted everything we need to know about each character. The first-time daters rush off to have sex; the couple who meet at the show go at it right there in the theater; the Southern parents express their intolerant attitudes, while their young son discovers that he likes the theater and their even younger daughter is puzzled when men kiss and women show each other unusual affection; a woman who has her husband's ashes in tow comes to terms with her loss (this is the Gardner role). And, yes, there's more where they came from...

This musical about musicals joins the roster of self-referential works that have sprouted like crocuses these past however-many years. "All I know is, it takes a Jew to write a good Broadway musical," one carping patron insists. (See David Hyde Pierce's 11 o'clock Spamalot rouser, "You Won't Succeed on Broadway.") Mention of Stephen Sondheim having bad breath is made by a frustrated publicist. One man calls what he's watching "better than Bombay Dreams." But give The Audience points for going beyond the usual clichés by paying more attention to ticket buyers than musical creators; some rather serious issues are introduced, examined, and not patly resolved in dialogue and song.

In a standout score that lacks only a soaring love ballad (what about adding one for the Champlin-Weber couple?), several songs are particular stand-outs. Rita Gardner's aria "I Think," by Jeff Blumenkrantz, is a honey, and so's "This Thing That is Happening" by Nancy Shayne, in which Rosemary Loar vents a lost woman's pain. Another sizzler is the rhythm and bluesy "Little White Lies" by Lewis Flinn and Brian Crawley, which Gerry McIntyre pounds across with backup from Yuka Takara, MaryAnn Hu, and Mika Saburi.

Stand-out perfs on offer? Jack Donahue as the writer, Tom Ligon as a pent-up father, Tina Johnson as the vet usher, Marta Curro as a loudmouth -- oh hell, everyone is terrific! And give a prize to lighting designer R. Lee Kennedy, who's had to program more cues than Tom DeLay has accumulated political gaffes. This has been an eye-opening season for Off-Broadway musicals, and The Audience contributes its own astonishing luster.

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