The musical spoof is a theatrical genre all its own, and it’s one that thrives in the indie universe of the Fringe Festival circuit. Of course, it was at this year’s Toronto Fringe Festival that The Musical of Musicals, The Musical! became a runaway hit. Its hokey, jokey sense of humour, hummable tunes, and highly experienced cast stood out from the hundred-plus other low-budget productions—so much so that David Mirvish plucked it from obscurity and placed it in the Off-Mirvish lineup. But until last Thursday, we had yet to see if its success so far was a Fringe fluke or the real deal.
Though it still bears the signature marks of a Fringe show with no set, basic costumes, and a single piano player (musical director Michael Mulrooney), the ultimate musical spoof The Musical of Musicals, The Musical! has jazz-squaring, tap-dancing legs of its own. Born out of the writer’s block of composer Eric Rockwell and lyricist Joanne Bogart, The Musical of Musicals is their attempt to be “first-rate imitations” of the musical theatre greats. The same cast recycles the same basic plot line—involving two young lovers, a landlord in need of the rent, and a wise maternal figure—five times over, each time in the style of a different composer: Rodgers & Hammerstein (Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music), Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods), Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly!, Mame), Andrew Lloyd Webber (The Phantom of the Opera, Cats), and Kander & Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago).
Luckily, each of the chosen composers has had hits in Hollywood as well as on Broadway, and Rockwell and Bogart focus their tunes and wordplay on those bigger hits to make sure that even those only vaguely aware of musical theatre will feel in on the joke. That being said, there are many more subtle lyrical and melodic tricks woven into Vinetta Strombergs’ direction that will keep diehards’ ears perked. And while it’s first and foremost a fun and frivolous mini-capsule of musical theatre history, each chapter also offers a glimpse into the mindset of each composer—Andrew Lloyd Webber, for example, is skewered as a commercial success with little original talent. The tribute to Jerry Herman’s antique star vehicle Dear Abby! is the shortest—wisely so, since this production lacks the required dazzling costume changes and grand staircase—and offers the most disappointing performance from Paula Wolfson. However, the Sondheim chapter, A Little Complex, features a hilariously twisted take on an apartment building filled with melancholy residents and a landlord who pulls triple duty as a murderer and an artist, and some impressively abstract lighting from Beth Kates.
With its original Fringe cast of former Stratford Festival performers and promising newcomers intact, the show’s Dana Jean Phoenix stands out as a variety of comedic young women who are eternally behind on their rent—she’s especially impressive in a whip-fast spoof on Liza Minnelli’s “Liza With a Z.” If only they all had Phoenix’s same energy until the final closing number, which seemed totally unrehearsed and out of sync—something that would have been forgivable in a Fringe setting, but stands out like a bad note on the Mirvish stage.
This article originally made reference to Ed Mirvish, rather than to David Mirvish.