GUTENBERG! THE MUSICAL! Reunites Rannells and Gad — Review
The comedy duo, once a Broadway staple, has all but disappeared since Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells lit up The Book of Mormon in 2011 so, absent a new pair, back those two come with Gutenberg! The Musical! Written by Scott Brown and Anthony King and ably directed by our reigning “special events” director Alex Timbers, it’s a perfectly silly, sort-of-meta show where two writers present the summation of their life’s work: a half-baked, grossly fictionalized dramatization of the 15th-century creator of the printing press.
Whether or not you caught Mormon’s original duo, you must only look at the new work’s promotional material to understand their tried-and-true dynamic: Gad and his highly kinetic face are the foil to Rannells’ arched-eyebrow straight man. If the former’s shtick—awkward-sauce grasps at his inhaler and a Failblog era amount of flailing—has fallen slightly out of favor, and seems to pile onto his character rather than build out from it, as his more versatile co-star does, no matter—the formula works.
Bud (Gad) and Doug (Rannells) are two Jerseyites who, after selling their car to afford a few Broadway tickets, decide to take the skills they’ve honed entertaining a local nursing home’s “pokers” (the ones you must poke to check for signs of life) to the country’s greatest stages. Or, with their feeble funds, the Jones Theatre, “on the weird side of 7th Avenue.”
Addressing the audience directly in the format of a one-night-only presentation, in hopes that some bigwig producer might jump from the audience and onto Scott Pask’s Saturday Night Live-esque, band-onstage set, they walk us through their ambitious treatment, song by song, differentiating each of its several roles with the help of dozens of labeled hats (by Emily Rebholz).
Did they even try to research? Nope, but then again, historical fiction, to them, is “fiction that is true.” Brown and King’s songs are catchy and generic enough to be immediately recognizable, leaving room for their book to remark upon the form’s more ridiculous elements. The commentary is a sweet love letter to musical theatre, sprinkled with some comic “MT for Dummies” explainers about basic tropes like motifs and the perennially-lesser-than second act. However sweet, their laughs get louder when they actually name their target, like some quips, assumedly not meant to land as timely as they have this past week, about one of the in-show’s characters, a boorish, anti-Semitic flower girl.
The humor in Gutenberg! could stand to be a bit more like the rat-infested streets upon which the meta-show’s characters walk, and a certain nastiness could have elevated this from good to great. But the talent onstage is unimpeachable, and their characters’ grief at the state of Broadway finances extends far beyond backroom production teams: Bud’s fictional uncle might have left a lucky fictional inheritance behind, but how many cars have been traded in for a pair of Hamilton seats? Here, one could find a worse deal.
Gutenberg! The Musical! is in performance through January 28, 2024 at the James Earl Jones Theatre on West 48th Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.