News Column

Theater review: 'Better than Broadway' funny but very crude

September 27, 2013


Sept. 27--"Better Than Broadway," a revision of the musical "The Teddy Bear Awards," has a lot of potential, but would benefit from a lighter touch.

The show, presented last weekend at Muhlenberg College, has a talented cast of six playing multiple roles, and skewers The Freddy Awards, the high-school musical awards program presented by the State Theatre in Easton, and the high school theater culture in general.

But while the show's storyline is about high school theater, the language definitely is adult, with very crude language and sexual references, much of which seems gratuitous. Too many jokes of the crude 14-year-old boy variety ultimately take away from the story.

The play, written by Allentown playwright Peter Schmidt, who also plays several roles, follows a loosely connected story in which several high schools are vying to win the award for "Most Awesomest Musical Ever This Year" in the annual Teddy Bear Awards.

The show is deliberately casual, with actors chatting with audience members beforehand; changing in the back of the theater space and calling scenes and blackout cues, some of which are done to humorous effect.

Cast members play parents on the school board, randy students, theater directors and even the ghost of the founder of Krautstown, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Allentown and the Lehigh Valley.

The show shines when the students at the competing high schools present musical numbers -- all clever spoofs of real songs from real shows.

The crude language works in the first musical number "Northern Lights," a take on Grease's "Summer Lovin'" that is set in Canada and has the same raunchy boy/innocent girl opposing views of a relationship.

The language is much more graphic than the original, but seems to hit the right balance when the boy, played by Kevin Rodden, reveals at the end he didn't even get "to second base." But later explicit references don't have the same payoff.

A side plot involving a young reporter looking to uncover a scandal at the Teddy Bear Awards starts out well, with Brittany Kvitako as an appealing wide-eyed Lois Lane-type. But then it gets bogged down.

Angela Carolfi is wonderful as the tightly wound director of the top Teddy Bear-award-winning school, who says that when she lost the Teddy it was like "losing a child."

A plot line about her crumbling marriage works well and when she finds out her husband, played by Schmidt, is having an affair, their argument to the tune of "Confrontation" from "Les Miserables" was spot-on.

Carolfi's breakdown scene, a pastiche of break-up and breakdown songs, also was particularly well-done. Ironically, Carolfi also plays the paramour, looking and sounding completely different.

Sarah Spangenberg is a stand-out as theater-geek Rachel Katzenmacher. She has an amazing voice and when accepting her award she gives a hilarious speech in which she tells the unvarnished truth.

Jerry McGrier plays the only black kid at his school who is drafted into playing the lead in "Slow Boat to Harlem." He has a great moment when his lip-synced solo, "Old Gal Broadway," takes an unexpected turn.

Local references and jokes are fun, with jabs at SteelStacks and Sands Casino Resort. There's a reference to Smokestaxx Casino that features Mary's Manger girlie club and Jocco's (Yocco's) hot dogs. There are nods to the area's religious beginnings with towns named Gethsemane and Jericho, as well as many Pennsylvania German references.

Song highlights include "There's No Madness Like High School Theater Madness," which turns "There's No Business Like Show Business" on its head, and the tongue-in-cheek "Panache" from "Hung Frankenstein," one of the school's musicals.

At two and a half hours, the show could still use trimming but it definitely hits its stride when lampooning the way parents, schools and administrators take the high school theater awards way too seriously.

-- "Better than Broadway: A Semi Musical Travesty," 8 p.m. Sept. 27-28, 2 p.m. Sept. 29, Mainstage at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St., Philadelphia. Tickets: $20; $15, students.



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