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Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre’s [title of show]

How to be nine people’s favorite thing

Clockwise from left: Angela Sullivan, Thomas Peter, Anastasia Sophia Herne and Christopher Overly.

[title of the show] is a musical about two men writing a musical about two men writing a musical. Think of seeing M.C. Escher’s optical puzzles dramatized.
    At Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, you’ll see the clean version. Apparently there is also a racier adult version.
    Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell created this musical about their own experience for a theater competition in 2006. Bowen wrote the music and lyrics and Bell the script. They incorporated the theatrical experiences of two of their friends, Heidi and Susan. Countering all expectations, they win the competition, get an off-Broadway, then a Broadway showing of the work they call [title of the show]. Which is what actually happened to Bowen and Bell.
    What you’re thinking is true. The play does start out as a bit of narcissistic navel-gazing by theater folk. Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre’s opening had other problems. Opening night was twice delayed; on the third try, cast was still struggling with vocal difficulties due to laryngitis as well as an injured ankle, which made pacing a bit ponderous.
    Somewhere in the middle of the show, magic happened. The players connected with the audience, the message became universal rather than theater-limited and the show showed promise.
    Directed by Rachel Murray, the four actors and their music director on keyboard are on stage throughout the 90 minute one-act show on a sparse, well painted set with only five chairs and a table.  Lighting (by Alex Doan) defines the different acting spaces more than set décor. Musical director Laura Brady, known as Mary in the show, has great comedic timing. She sparkles on the stage, adding more than her keyboard talents.
    Christopher Overly plays Hunter Bell and Thomas Peter plays Jeff Bowen. The two actors are good counterpoints to each other. Once the laryngitis is gone, it can be expected that harmonies will return to their duets.
    Angela Sullivan plays Susan and Anastasia Sophia Herne plays Heidi. Both women have strong, powerful solos, both vocally and emotionally, and help bring the script’s universality home. 
    The showpiece of this production is Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre’s superb use of technology. For the song Monkeys and Playbills, a window is revealed to be a theater poster box, which then becomes a screen that flashes the playbills for the dozens and dozens of show titles named in the song. It’s another Escher twist, surprising and effective. 
    The songs are clever and intriguing. Die, Vampire, Die is a funny and insightful song about what kills creativity. Change It/Don’t Change It is about what is next after the powers that be want to edit the very creativity that was first praised. Nine People’s Favorite Thing, the final song, is the cast’s decision that they prefer this distinction to being everyone’s ninth favorite thing. They choose to be led by their instincts, not by the professional advice to smooth out the edges that made them unique.
    The best song is A Way Back to Then, about trying to realize youthful ambitions in a difficult world. When those ambitions are realized, Heidi sings, “You’re that little girl/With her wings unfurled/Flying again/Back in your backyard dancing/I found a way back to then.”
    That song shows how far [title of the show] travels in 90 minutes:  from a simple theater story to a universal longing. That’s the goal of good theater and this show delivers that — and good music, too.

Director: Rachel Murray. Technical director: Matthew Mitchell. Lighting designer: Alex Doan. Costumer: Nikki Gerbasi. Set designers: Rachel Murray and Matt Mitchell. Stage manager: Chelsea Adams-Cook.
Playing thru July 20. Th-Su (except July 4) and Wed. July 17 8:30pm at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, 143 Compromise St. $20: 410-268-9212; www.summergarden.com.