Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


I honestly can't think of a better description for the concept behind [title of show], the newest production by Who Wants Cake? at the Ringwald, than the scene in Spaceballs in which the characters (incongruously) pop in the VHS of Spaceballs to spy on what happens in a future scene. But first, they cue up the very part of the movie in which they're watching the movie, forming a picture-in-picture of sorts. One character tries to explain it, and both in real time and on the monitor, he says, "You're looking at now, sir. Everything that happens now, is happening now."

In the same vein, creators Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell decided to write a musical about writing a musical, starring them and two of their friends (as themselves). So if they say something while writing the show ("Even this?"), if they take their shirts off while preparing for the show (yep), it goes in the show. The original draft was finished in three weeks for submission to a festival. It was a big hit there, and again off-Broadway, and finally enjoyed a run on Broadway, all the while starring them and two of their friends (as themselves). That's not just the history of the musical, that is the musical. Everything that happens now, is happening now.

The early material, the really thoughtful meta work about the writing process, is superior. Bowen and Bell are guys who live and breathe musicals, from their "Popular" ringtones to the poster-adorned setting by Michael Reeves that amicably serves as nowhere and everywhere, so their goal of creating something like nothing they've ever seen isn't derisive, but ambitious. Avoiding the smugness of some self-referential shows, the characters are critical and forthright — just as I started musing, "This scene runs long," a character piped in that the scene was running long. Similar moments too numerous to detail, including the lonely character arc of seldom-speaking accompanist Larry (Jeff Bobick), give an honest presentation of the creative process that's fun to get caught up with. However, Bowen and Bell supplement the story of writing the show with coda after coda, adding real-time developments up to the Broadway opening. When the focus shifts to mounting and revising the show, and the creative and personal battles that threaten its future, it's tougher to keep the material fresh because the constantly self-referential "us" simply isn't. Several scripted discussions and rejections of casting other people as "Hunter," "Jeff," "Heidi," and "Susan" make believability an uphill battle, despite the actors of the Who Wants Cake? production commendably owning the characters and selling the incredulity of the experience.

But the script, however unconventional, is not the real draw for this production. Watching these four artists thoroughly enjoy performing together is reward enough. As directed by Joe Bailey, the actors best personify the fun of creating a show by having fun onstage, and it shows for all ninety minutes. Jeff (Jaime Richards) is steadfast in maintaining the integrity of his vision, culminating in the catchy "Nine People's Favorite Thing." Joe Plambeck plays Hunter, but is best in a brief appearance as the filthy-mouthed apparition of Blank Paper for the Schoolhouse Rock!–inspired "An Original Musical." Who Wants Cake? newcomer Allyson Ortwein lends a gorgeous voice and a natural, likable Cameron Diaz goofiness to Heidi, and Jamie Warrow's Susan shines as the funny one worried about being overshadowed or seen as the weak link; a female rivalry is touched on, but passed over quickly, and together the women rule the late song "Secondary Characters." Music direction by Jeremy Ryan Mossman showcases strong vocals and excellent harmonies, choreography by Jerry Haines is sweetly simple, mostly playing with unison and counterpoint motions, and Michelle LeRoy's bouncing lighting design helps turn the numbers into flashy spectacles.

[title of show] holds up just as well as its Ringwald predecessor, Based on a Totally True Story; the shows' autobiographical and self-referential themes do invite comparison. This wasn't an intentional choice, but rather the product of a scheduling shakeup in Who Wants Cake?'s season, so I can't fault them for lack of diversity. The present production is only helped by its inclusion of musical numbers, from the mocking "Untitled Opening Number" to the supercharged "Die, Vampire, Die!" This show is unafraid to poke fun at itself as it buoys forward, eternally in the present, with a wonderful cast that determinedly maintains the sense that everything that happens, is happening now.


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