Volume 76, Number 36 | January 31 - February 6, 2007

Photo by James Ambler

Christopher Fitzgerald and Jeremy Shamos in “Gutenberg! The Musical!”

Despite a paper-thin plot, ‘Gutenberg’ delivers

By Scott Harrah

Corny, silly, historically inaccurate, shamelessly politically incorrect and undeniably hilarious, the two-man spoof “Gutenberg! The Musical!” is more like a long stand-up comedy routine or cabaret act than an off-Broadway musical. Bud Davenport (Christopher Fitzgerald) and Doug Simon (Jeremy Shamos) play two wannabe Broadway show writers doing a reading of their purported musical biography of printing-press inventor Johann Gutenberg for what they hope is a theater full of potential producers. Bud and Doug’s vocal abilities are as paper-thin as the plot of their convoluted tale, but they more than make up for their shortcomings with charm and wit. The show, which originated at Chelsea’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and had a successful run last winter at the Jeremy Street Theater in London, was mounted at the New York Musical Theater Festival in September, 59E59 Theater in December, and received such critical and audience acclaim that it has been brought to the Actors’ Playhouse in the West Village for a limited engagement through March 25th.

The narrative is as inane and intentionally insipid as anything by Mel Brooks, and the wacky skewering of Gutenberg’s life story has all the campy elements of one of Brooks’s mock retellings of history, complete with tasteless Nazi and Jewish jokes, sexist humor about the female anatomy, and absurd songs. According to Bud and Doug, Gutenberg grew up in the Medieval German hamlet of Schlimmer and got his start working as a wine presser. He was dumbfounded by the high rate of illiteracy in the town. To illustrate just how bad things are, Bud and Doug act out a scene in which a woman’s baby dies because she can’t read a prescription bottle and mistakenly gives her sick child jellybeans instead of medicine. (The two wear a multitude of baseball caps with people’s names written across the front to let us know when they’re portraying a different character.) Gutenberg falls in love with his assistant, a blonde airhead named Helvetica (just like the typeface — wink, wink). She works as a grape stomper, has large breasts, and not much in the brain department. Her show-stopping ballad is all about how she can’t read words — or Gutenberg himself. He soon has an epiphany and realizes that he could turn his wine press into a printing press so that everyone will have more access to printed literature and, thus, learn to read.

There’s just one problem: only monks in the local monastery can read, and they want to keep it that way so that only they can read the Bible and interpret it for the masses. Although there may be a shred of historical truth to this, it’s doubtful that monks in the Middle Ages had electric pencil sharpeners, but Bud and Doug love to throw in such nonsensical details for a laugh. Along the way, the two lampoon everything from over-the-top Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals to anti-Semitism. (One of the characters is actually called Anti-Semitic Flower Girl, and she’s certainly nothing like Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.”)

Although the humor is strictly lowbrow schlock, it is never dull and always clever, and Fitzgerald and Shamos do a superb job of portraying the many different characters. The only problem here is that, for a 90-minute farce, there really isn’t a need to break the story into two acts. But since Bud and Doug comment on the futility and disappointing aspects of second acts in musical theater, it’s all part of the show anyway. “Gutenberg! The Musical!” will thrill anyone who loves the American musical theater and isn’t afraid to see it lovingly satirized.

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