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Review the Revue

A mashup of musicals at Theatre Memphis and a comedy about Catholic-school woe at the University of Memphis.

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You'd probably never guess it from the title, but The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!) is in fact a musical and one that doesn't take itself too seriously either. For diehard fans with a good ear and a keen sense of silliness, this tightly wound mashup/sendup of American musical theater can pay off like the loosest slot machine in town. It's also a bit of an insider's game, and if you haven't seen at least a few productions of Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Phantom of the Opera, Sunday in the Park with George, Cats, Starlight Express, Evita, Hello, Dolly!, Mame, La Cage aux Folles, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Chicago, and Cabaret, you might get lost in the invisible woods.

The Musical of Musicals plays out like an improv comedy game. Four core characters — a boy, a girl, a wise older woman, and a greedy landlord — tell one simple story five different ways in the style of composers Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Kander & Ebb. The plot distilled: "I can't pay the rent"/"But you must pay the rent." (Rent, get it?) And that's about all there is to that.

Daniel Kopera's all-purpose pink and purple set telegraphs instantly that the audience is in for a bare-bones theatrical experience drenched in cheap sparkly stuff. The strong ensemble cast, dressed all in black with sequins and rhinestones, fulfills every garish promise.

The Musical of Musicals is a perfect showcase for Jude Knight. She brings fun understatement to an otherwise over-the-top show. Amy Nabors gives a standout performance, matching fantastic singing with hilarious character development. Brennan Villines is always a pleasure in song and dance roles, but nothing beats the joy of watching Kent Fleshman try his hand at spoofing the Emcee from Cabaret. This isn't the sort of role a beefy baritone like Fleshman would ever have the chance to play otherwise, and he goes for it.

The real star of this ensemble show is just offstage: musical director/accompanist Gary Beard, who has all the show's secret laugh lines and who nails every one.

Director Bennett Wood has staged many a classy musical revue, and there are moments when one gets the sense that he's spoofing himself as much as anybody.

Through November 23rd

If you haven't seen Alfred Molina's video about "Arthur H. Cartwright, Children's Theater Critic," look it up on your favorite computing device. The expression of stunned disgust on Molina's face as a group of adorable children sing "Old MacDonald" is one of the funniest things on the internet, and it only gets better when a proud parent turns to the critic and beams, "That's my kid up there." Molina touches the man's shoulder and gently answers, "I'm so sorry."

Some days I relate to the absurdity of Molina's skit. Some days I just relate. Cutting to the chase, I don't get the appeal of Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?, a musical adaptation of John R. Powers' novel about Catholic school kids in the 1950s. It's being performed by a bunch of talented, fresh-faced students at the University of Memphis, whose hopes and dreams I will now proceed to crush.

Truth is, the kids are all great, and some of them more than great. But the subject matter sounds like it was ripped from the pages of a vintage Reader's Digest. The possibility of romance between awkward misfits — an underachieving boy and a friendless chubby girl destined to become a nun — is sweetly compelling. But Black Patent Leather trucks primarily in thin stereotypes and nostalgia. Imagine a mashup of A Christmas Story and Grease, minus Christmas and any actual grease, then add rosary beads.

Much of the comedy in Black Patent Leather is wrung from pop culture staples like ruler-wielding nuns and old jokes about masturbation. The script practically begs for the mugging it gets.

I like to drop in on our college and university theaters from time to time, because they program more challenging work, and it's fun watching young, motivated actors wrestling with difficult characters and concepts. So maybe I'm just disappointed that the material in question seemed so safe and suburban.

Through November 16th

Image: Skip Hooper

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