Comets tend to capture international attention when they are most visible, and then disappear out of mind for the long period it takes them to come around to Earth again. So it is with Regina Comet (Bryonha Marie Parham), the pop superstar at the center of Ben Fankhauser and Alex Wyse's musical A Commercial Jingle for Regina Comet, now making its world premiere at the DR2 Theatre. Decades have passed since the paparazzi hounded her, when she was the subject of sexual intrigue with all three Hanson brothers (or so we are told in one of this generally inoffensive musical's racier moments). But she's plotting a comeback by launching a new fragrance, and she needs someone to write a jingle for the commercial.
Enter our two anti-heroes, a pair of no-name songwriters played by the actual songwriting team of this show. Literally, they have no names: Fankhauser plays "Man 2" (the composer) and Wyse plays " Other Man" (the lyricist). They've been working together since their childhood summers at Camp Rosenblatt, where they would delight the other campers with their "poignant, yet haunting" Shabbat musicals. They pitch a song on spec hoping to get hired for a big professional gig, and Regina chooses them for the fragrance jingle because they're the cheapest option. They feel a sudden burst of creative energy, but their collaboration faces extinction from its close encounter with a Comet.
"I thought you were gay," Regina says to Man 2 as they sit down for a date at a fancy vegan restaurant in the Meatpacking District, to which he responds, "Just culturally." He's crushing hard on Regina, while his workaholic writing partner stays at home and frets about the lyrics. But as long as Other Man is doing all the work, why shouldn't he go solo — and poach Regina as his first big client?
Fankhauser and Wyse (who share equal credit for book, music, and lyrics) tap-dance around a real cultural phenomenon, which is the fact that there are about a hundred people trained to work in creative fields for every actual position our economy can sustain (cliodynamicist Peter Turchin calls this the "overproduction of elites"). Such brutal competition turns hunger into cannibalistic desperation, and there is real comic potential in that story — specifically how the bond between childhood best friends, collaborators, and roommates can be so easily ruptured when professional success seems to be within reach. Unfortunately, Fankhauser and Wyse don't pursue this thread very far, delivering a too-easy resolution that we can see coming from lightyears away.
There are still plenty of laughs to be had from a funny script that doesn't take itself too seriously, and witty lyrics to match. In her very first number, Regina speculates, "A fragrance named for me / A jingle in my key / Could help me be on QVC again," and we're ready to buy whatever she's selling.
The music is enjoyable, but mostly reminiscent of earlier works. Rather than pining after "One Song Glory," the songwriters are looking for that "One Hit Song." "Connecting the Dots," which depicts all three characters in a creative brainstorm, will surely have more than a few audience members thinking about "Opening Doors" from Merrily We Roll Along (although Stephanie Klemons's swivel chair choreography is a real highlight). And "Conflict of Interest," Man 2's exuberant declaration of love for Regina, feels like it was drawn from an early draft of The Last Five Years.
All of that can be papered over by committed performances, and Fankhauser and Wyse mostly deliver. It's Parham, however, who really embraces the wacky refracted reality of Regina Comet, exploiting it for maximum comic potential. Her wistful mid-show number, "The Girl Beneath the Lasers," is hilarious from the first lyric: "I always knew / when I was young / That I would be an LLC." She spends much of the show in a tracksuit that looks like it was made for Whitney Houston in the '80s (spot-on costuming by Sarita Fellows). And her creative vocal interpretations of her text messages are a laugh riot.
Director Marshall Pailet helms a speedy 80-minute production on Wilson Chin's specific yet versatile set, which depicts the songwriters' apartment as something of a conspiracist's lair, with scraps of paper posted to every wall. Aja M. Jackson's lighting creates plenty of arena spectacular moments within the cozy confines of the DR2, and Twi McCallum's sound design provides clarity and balance.
This isn't the best new musical playing in New York, but you're guaranteed to laugh at this irreverent send-up of the more cynical aspects of the entertainment industry.