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'Gutenberg! The Musical!' delivers 2 hours of crass, low-brow laughs

By the time I trudged up the concrete steps of the Great Arrow Building to catch the Alt Theatre's production of "Gutenberg! The Musical!," it had been a long and frustrating day.

By the time I descended those same steps two hours later, still reeling from the ridiculous antics of Tim Newell and David Butler, all memories of what made the day so disappointing had completely vanished.

This is exactly the situation for which theater like "Gutenberg!" was invented. No profound truths were uncovered, no shocking insights into the human condition revealed, no conceptual depths plumbed. The show is simply two straight hours of the most low-brow, crass and depraved theater we've seen in Buffalo for some time. For all those reasons and more, it was wonderful.

The concept behind "Gutenberg!" is tried and true. Taking a healthy share of its inspiration from Christopher Guest's brilliant 1996 mockumentary "Waiting for Guffman" and some comic pointers from Mel Brooks' "The Producers," the show is a case study in indulgent dramatic irony. At its center are Bud (Newell) and Doug (Butler), two impossibly dorky and absurdly overconfident but nonetheless endearing men who have on their hands what they believe to be a sure-fire idea for the perfect musical.

Their dubious masterpiece is, as you may have guessed, centered on Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the movable type printing press. What's lost on Bud and Doug is the same thing that's lost on any number of composers and lyricists who pick dubious subject matter about important historical figures: a great accomplishment does not necessarily translate into an interesting life, much less an interesting musical. Local examples of this approach abound (though they will go nameless here), a fact that makes Alt's production of "Gutenberg!" all the more cutting in its humor.

The show, presented as a staged reading with accompanying didactic explanations from the authors, is chock-full of foibles you would be wrong to assume that only the theatrically naive could make. Cockney, Yiddish and African-American accents, in a musical set in Germany, creep in at inopportune moments. Nonsensical references to the Holocaust, which occurred centuries after the play's setting, come into play, too, because, as the creators say, "Every important musical has to tackle at least one incredibly serious issue, like racism, or Vietnam, or a man with half a face."

The songs themselves ("I Can't Read," "Biscuits," "Words, Words, Words") are an impressive series of deft pastiches of popular Broadway styles and composers, Elton John perhaps foremost among them. It switches with no particular rhyme or reason from boogie-woogie to "Rent"-like rock and on to Rodgers and Hammerstein or the blues. The lyrics are fantastically bad, ("You've made wine, prob'ly about a million times / You dumb German wench") -- bad enough even to give Tim Rice a run for his money.

Tim Newell asserts himself on the Alt stage as one of the best comic actors Buffalo has. His array of facial expressions and command of physical humor say a great deal more than his singing voice. His interplay with Butler (who holds his own next to Newell's more honed comic chops), guided by Loraine O'Donnell's smart direction, is schtick at its best.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com