After its summer success with Leni, Strawberry Theatre Workshop again makes mounting a hit look easy by simply adhering to a few immutable fundamentals: an inspired choice of material (in this case, a show developed by the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York), production values that make each quarter spent look like a dollar on stage, and peerless casting instinct. In Gutenberg! The Musical!, we watch as the creators of a show that looks about as promising as Springtime for Hitler conduct "backer's auditions"—a dog-and-pony routine designed to let potential investors know about this terrific concept, while spending no money at all on props, sets, or actors.In this show's central conceit, the audience are invited guests who get to witness a staged reading by the playwrights. Somewhere in the audience, we're told, there may even be a Broadway producer with checkbook at the ready! We're part of the lucky few who watch the debut of a new musical based loosely (an understatement if ever there was one) on the life of Johann Gutenberg, who invented the printing press in 1450. And since composers Doug Simon(Troy Fischnaller) and Bud Davenport (MJ Sieber) were able to find scant information on the inventor through their cursory Google search, the remainder of his life story derives from the authors' fervid imaginations.Eager to please, Doug and Bud dash through the show's projected story and songs, bringing the sleepy German town of Schlimmer to life through a quick-change of gimme caps emblazoned with the names of myriad colorful locals—including a Satan-worshipping monk who serves as Gutenberg's nemesis, and Johann's love interest, Helvetica. (Coincidentally the name of a very beautiful font, we're told.) Fischnaller and Sieber play Doug and Bud straight. They may not be bright, but they're brimming with gumption. At one point during their canned pep talk, they even discuss the conventions of their craft...sort of. "What's foreshadowing?" Doug asks in a rare teachable moment. "I'll tell you," the other responds with a wink. "Later."As Doug and Bud see it, the one trait common to the entire populace of Schlimmer—with the exception of the evil monk, who hoards knowledge as power—is that they can't read. This vital plot point is telegraphed in numerous and none-too-subtle ways. For example, when Gutenberg greets a woman and her child on the street and Johann asks how they're doing: "Well enough," replies the girl, "for someone who can't read." In Schlimmer, even the town drunks have a terrific excuse for their loutish behavior: "It's not like we can read," they defend. When Gutenberg modifies his wine press into a printing press to remedy the situation, he causes a chain reaction throughout the town, and the malevolent monk must enlist the beautiful but naive Helvetica to destroy Johann's infernal creation.The composers' search for a Broadway producer ultimately has a payoff, but it's really the journey that's a blast here, and much of the mirth provided comes in song form as the duo struggle to find rhymes for Gutenberg ("darn-tootin' berg" and "no refutin'-berg" are just a few) and grasp to fill the vacuum of information about German hamlet life circa 1450. Among the treats are chestnuts like "I Can't Read," "Monk With Me," and a ditty called "Biscuits," which has nothing to do with anything, we're informed, but remains in the show because it makes the audience feel good. Actual Broadway shows should be so candid.None of this silliness would work without two alternately scene-stealing personalities (three, if you include Don Darryl Rivera's turn as an accompanist with an acute case of stage fright). Fischnaller's Doug is giddily foul-mouthed with self-congratulation, and Sieber has a twinkle in his eye even as he works himself into a sweaty state of breathless zeal. Both performers toil feverishly to keep director Greg Carter's pace for the show—a five-shot-espresso-with-a-Red-Bull-chaser momentum from start to finish. The brakes are completely disabled on this speeding clown car of inside theater jokes, though the second act takes the same dip in quality that Doug and Bud grouse about in the work of others.As history, Gutenberg! The Musical! has to be one of the least informative shows in the genre. If you don't learn anything about the immortal printer's world or work here, Doug and Bud would quickly remind you that according to their research, you're not actually missing firstname.lastname@example.org
Gutenberg! The Musical! Strawberry Theatre Workshop at Erickson Theater Off Broadway, 1524 Harvard Ave., www.strawshop.org. $10–$25. 8 p.m. Thurs.–Sat. through Sept. 25; 10:30 p.m. Sept. 26–27; also 8 p.m. Mon., Sept. 15 & 22. Ends Sept. 27.