A musical about a printing press is a winner for The Rep
Many people are credited with saying it, but Jerry Seinfeld said it once, for sure.
"Tragedy and death are easy," Seinfeld said. "Comedy is hard."
If that's true, and there is no reason to doubt it, then the Milwaukee Rep's production of "Gutenberg! The Musical!" made the difficult look sublimely easy when it opened Sunday night.
A relaxed crowd in the Stackner Cabaret laughed from the opening line, "Welcome to Gutenberg!" to the close of the show. It was almost hard to catch your breath as the jokes came at a frantic pace.
Relaxing this show is not, but it is a well-rounded production of an absurd story that tells the tale of writers Doug and Bud, who have written a musical about Johann Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press.
There is no suspense in this play. You don't really care where the story goes. The story of Gutenberg, ironically, hardly matters.
What matters are the lines, the jokes and the broad physical comedy that is the stuff of the history of comedy. Mix the stories of George Burns and Jerry Seinfeld with the frenetic action of the Marx Brothers and you've got something approaching this production.
This play is only seven years old and has played to mixed reviews around the country. Some people absolutely love it and others aren't so warmed by the humor, calling it obvious and overly broad.
It is broad, but obvious it is not. The best jokes in the world have an element of surprise to them and that's true of this play. The jokes loosely have something to do with the story, but the surprise of some of them is what makes them so funny.
Normally a dead baby and the Holocaust are not fitting for humor, but this play makes them both funny and there is no shame in laughing at these jokes. You don't feel the least bit guilty laughing at either.
This play is not going to win any awards for best of the year, or the decade, or anything like that. But, it's the people on stage and off who make this an incredibly enjoyable evening of theater.
Laura Gordon, who next year will celebrate her 20th season in Milwaukee theater and with The Rep, directed this outing with a silken touch that created room for funny, which often can be smothered by overloading. She obviously knew this play was going to sink or swim on its actors, and she guided a textbook lesson on how a director's hands-off approach to a production is as important as hands-on. She is both an actor and director of immense versatility and has always delivered gems.
Eric Damon Smith, a Chicago actor who was an intern at The Rep, plays Bud, one half of the duo of writers. He's got a wildly diverse singing voice and the ability to play men, women, heroes and villains with equal aplomb.
The music in this play is really not that important. There are no songs that will live a life of their own and nobody left humming a song. But Paul Helm, who served as the play's musical director/pianist, kept the pace lively and was a marvelous musical backdrop to the antics taking place center stage.
Saving Gerard Neugent for the final mention feels almost like a stupid error. But he is an actor who has set an incredibly high standard in this city.
He can do anything. He was Iago in last year's "Othello" and played Happy in "Death of a Salesman." But he's also one of the funniest actors you will ever see.
There's an old joke about timing being the most important thing in the world of comedy. Watching Neugent wring an audience's titter out of silence, only to be traded in for a guffaw when he says something, is worth the price of admission.
These characters could easily become caricatures and we wouldn't really care about them. But Neugent has a truth about him that finds layers even in a character like Doug. When he looks sad you want to wrap him in your arms, pat him on the head and say, "Don't worry. It will all be OK."
Neugent does it with his face, his body and his eyes. They all combine to make it look easy.
And like Seinfeld said, comedy isn't easy, it's very, very hard.
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