“What do Critics Know?” at the New York Musical Theatre Festival at The Alice Griffin Theatre (Closed Monday July 27, 2015)

Book by Matthew Gurren
Music and Lyrics by Matthew Gurren and James Campodonico
Directed by Michael Bello
Reviewed by Joseph Verlezza
Theatre Reviews Limited

I assume that there are times when audiences just want to go to the theater and see a good old fashioned musical comedy since there is a constant flow of revivals opening on Broadway to satisfy that urge. There is certainly room amongst the cutting edge subject matter and new music genres that keep creeping onto the scene for a new classic romantic comedy with good structure, a decent dramatic arc to the plot and a score where you actually might find yourself leaving the theater humming a tune. Strong belting solos, dynamic duets, harmonizing trios, exuberant ensembles and the good old chorus of singers and dancers that give life to the exhausting production number are just a few things that can assure a success. You need wait no longer if you happen to catch the new musical “What Do Critics Know?” being presented as part of NYMF at the Alice Griffin Theater. The book by a young Matthew Gurren is a testament that a solid book for a romantic comedy, albeit set in a past decade, can still captivate and entertain. The music and lyrics by Mr. Gurren and James Campodonico are classic and varied, visiting several different styles which serve and support the characters and situations that arise. The lyrics work most of the time and are simple and smart, move the plot forward and integrate into the story easily.

The capsulated plot is about a Broadway composer that is having a run of shows that are being panned by the critics and has hit rock bottom. His wish is that the critics have to write a musical for Broadway and fall prey to the critics themselves. Not to complicate things I will only say the critics are blackmailed and his wish comes true. Of course there is a happy ending, or I should say a few. Quite a bit, and I mean a lot happens in between the lines and all is in the greatest innocent fun. Even if you don’t like this type of show there are times that you cannot help but laugh out loud at some of the silly antics.

The cast is ever so solid and understands so well what they need to do and what they can do to make this production work. Characters are well defined, three dimensional and emotionally connected to the material and they tend to be a bit stereotypical but that element disappears quickly as you get caught up in the amusing capers. Yes the plot is predictable but what sometimes what is more important is the journey not the destination.

Chris Gleim gives a clear, innocent and noble portrayal of defeated playwright Nathan, with a pure tenor and wholesome look. As Dahlia, Sarah Stevens is delightful as a love interest and ineluctable understudy, demonstrating strong vocal ability. As the critics, Ryan Knowles, Mary Mossberg and Prescott Seymour are absolutely perfect, fully immersed in their characters, with great comic flair, solid vocals and just the right amount of emotional depth to make an audience fall in love with them. Ms. Mossberg is a vocal powerhouse and turns in a good dramatic transition in Act two, although a bit more subtlety could enhance the performance. There is nothing that can describe the antics of Shakespeare and Bach, played respectively by Bruce Ribold and Jason Fleck, as they boldly roll in to save the day. They are both hysterical.

Mind you this show is not perfect and that is to be expected. Something that occurs often, the second act needs work. It drags just a bit because Act one seems to be so structurally sturdy. Also after some great musical numbers the finale needs to be more robust and rousing, more of a celebration. I am sure with continued commitment to this project and some alterations, it will overcome any hurdles and only improve.