"Writing a musical is not easy," says Doug Simon (Gary Rucker), to which Bud Davenport (Sean Patterson) quips, "Hats off to you, Elton John!"
Gutenberg! The Musical!, produced by The Storyville Collective at The Theatre at St. Claude, is a play-within-a-play in which a couple of aspiring show creators present a sliver of an idea to would-be producers. The two engaging characters — Bud, who is writing the score, and Doug, who is developing the script — hope to convince investors to back their idea so they can produce it on Broadway. There are just a few problems with their plan. Their nonaction hero, Johannes Gutenberg, invented movable type, which does not lend itself to quick-witted dialogue and dramatic action. Doug and Bud search the internet for information about him but find that details of his life are "scant." So they make up a story, classifying it as "historical fiction" and set it to music performed by the amiable pianist, James Kelly.
"Gutenberg!" is a reading of a musical, with "no set, no costumes, only a few props, and no cast," the two tell the audience. They are "singing all the songs, performing all the roles and giving you some help to understand the potential for what we've written."
Undeterred by facts, Bud and Doug seize the concept of the 15th-century German inventor, whose printing press enabled mass production of the Bible and other books, which kicked off the Renaissance, Reformation and Age of Enlightenment. Unencumbered by chronology or common sense, Bud and Doug employ every imaginable Middle Ages cliche to spin their yarn, including an evil monk, a zaftig blonde, butchers, short pants, dirty thatch roofs, haunted woods, rats, feces and a dead baby. To give the show some weight, they include mention of the Holocaust, despite the fact it occurred 500 years later.
Doug wears a preppy argyle sweater and Bud a plaid shirt as they present the premise for the play. A dozen caps with characters' names emblazoned on the fronts are used to indicate the many characters. For a crowd scene, they stack up a pile of hats. The rotund Bud delights in mimicking the wiles of shapely women. In keeping with the improvisational method, there is no scenery or props, and the set is from a different production.
Gutenberg! originally was conceived at New York's Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, an improvisational comedy venue. Under Michael McKelvey's direction, the show is paced at lightning speed, and nonsensical repartee reflects a spontaneous thought process, giving the impression the actors are making it all up as they go along. Bud speaks in a modern English accent, and not one song is written with German inflection, but the actors' irrepressible enthusiasm and boundless energy keep the audience appreciating the goofy gags.
The obliviousness to world history may underscore the severe inadequacies of our educational system but provides a golden opportunity for zany humor.