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The cast of The Water Coolers
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The tribulations of life in the modern workplace lend themselves rather readily to satire, but incisive views of the topic on stage are all too rare. The new musical revue The Water Coolers pushes a few easy buttons to make us laugh but also mines some truly golden veins of comic inspiration.

The show, playing at Dillon's on West 54th Street, combines the goofy, easy charm of a Saturday Night Live sketch with the polish and thoughtfulness of a piece that has had a much longer evolution. The results are quite enjoyable. While the material isn't exactly hard-hitting, eye-opening, or revolutionary, certain moments made this reviewer laugh as hard as he has at any new show this year. The marketing copy for The Water Coolers describes it as "Dilbert meets Forbidden Broadway," but that's a much happier marriage than it sounds.

Conceived by Thomas Michael Allen, co-creator of Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding, and written by him with four other writers, this revue offers new lyrics to famous music by everyone from Prince ("Manic Monday" becomes "Panicked Monday") to the Beach Boys ("In My Room" becomes "In My Cube") to Handel (the Hallelujah chorus is turned into "Paranoia!"), as well as several original songs. Though this may not be a terribly promising starting point, the team's facility with lyrics is evident. For example, they offer a perfect description of an office cubicle to the tune of the Beach Boys song ("smaller than a prison cell, with much less privacy").

Other songs and sketches address topics like office political correctness with deft, simple strokes. The placing of a call to the tech help desk becomes an inspired if somewhat predictable bit called "The I.T. Cowboy." The evening's high point is a sendup of male vanity embodied by Adam Mastrelli as Steve, who with hilarious self-absorption sings of accepting his role as the M.O.H. -- Male Office Hottie. This performer's Off-Broadway debut here is stellar, and one is hard pressed to recall a recent stage moment that better skewers the shallowness lurking within us all.

The other cast members are also very polished; they bring abundant wit, energy, and musical ability to their assignments. Marya Grandy, one of the show's co-writers, has a solo in which her voice displays a sophistication to match her impressive credits. The moving emotion that this song strives for is difficult to reach, given the flippant tone of the rest of the show; but, if set up better by the book, the number might work wonderfully well. (The show could also benefit by replacing some of the weaker numbers with some more character development in the book.) Grandy and the rest of the cast members seem to have abilities that aren't fully showcased here; if each of these five performers had a show-stopper like Mastrelli's "A Song of Acceptance," the show as a whole would be unstoppable.

As Frank, a know-nothing boss of the type familiar to Dilbert aficionados, Peter Brown is very funny and in fine voice. So is Kurt Robbins, whose charm and fresh-faced charisma is apparent in a variety of roles. Elena Shaddow is burdened with the weakest lines in the show but does well with what she's given. William Wesbrook's direction is phenomenally crisp, giving each sketch and song the momentum it needs without becoming too frantic.

Though the original music in the show is not terribly memorable, it serves its purpose by enhancing the razor-sharp wit evinced in the book. What is most impressive about The Water Coolers is its ability to find freshness in the tired office realities that have already been squeezed for comedy everywhere, from sitcoms to websites. The writers know of what they speak: their "proven track record for leading award winning sales teams," comically noted in one bio, speaks to the accuracy of every barb.

If musical revues are not your thing, this show won't necessarily make you a believer; it almost seems to succeed in spite of the fragmented presentation. But, on the night I attended, the audience was buzzing with energy afterwards -- and that's a very good sign, whatever the medium.

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