Meta at Minnsky: The show-within-a-show schtick gets more layers in '[title of show]'

Grey Tree Studios

Grey Tree Studios

The creators of [title of show] constantly questioned themselves while taking their own eccentric project from a hastily assembled festival entry to the Great White Way. At least, that’s the version of the story that’s immortalized in the musical, which hit Broadway in a Tony-nominated 2008 run and is now playing in a scrappy new Minnsky Theatre production.

The show’s meta-theatrical concept gets a little exhausting, all the more so in a production like this where you have to keep your mind wrapped around the fact that you’re watching actors playing actors playing versions of themselves that have been repeatedly revised in a show that is often precisely about those revisions. Got it?

On paper it sounds extraordinarily pretentious, but the show’s charm is that playwright Hunter Bell (played at Minnsky by Richard Lewer) and songwriter Jeff Bowen (Steven Cox) successfully spin themselves as unassuming theater nerds who despair of making it to Broadway without a hit movie to adapt. If they’re going to risk an original musical, why not make it about their own decision to write an original musical?

What began as a fun one-act is now, even with intermission, quite a marathon for the four actors—all of whom are onstage for virtually the entire show, along with their keyboard accompanist Larry (Danny Glass). Cox and Lewer are complemented by Amanda Richards as the guys’ sassy friend Susan and by Roni Paige, who also directed, as Heidi, a gifted singer-actor who’s torn between [title of show] and a potential role in The Little Mermaid.

While the quartet make an amiable ensemble of actors, they’re strongest when singing. The show’s not-so-secret weapon has always been Bowen’s witty and varied songs, and if you’ve learned to love them on the cast album (which of course gets its own meta reference), you’ll appreciate the chance to hear these strong renditions delivered live.

Music director Glass keeps the complex arrangements tight, while Paige wins warm performances from her cast. [title of show] may never be completely satisfying in any production not starring the original creators, though, and while the Minnsky actors are likable, none of them demonstrate the kind of stage presence that might make you forget they’re doing a bit.

What the production seems to beg for is a final number chronicling the way this cast came together in Minneapolis to play that cast playing themselves in New York. That would probably cause licensing problems, though: an irony that Bell and Bowen themselves might appreciate.

[title of show]
Minnsky Theatre
1517 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis
612-930-1517; through August 31