by JK Clarke . . .
It used to be quite common for a TV show, film or musical to examine the world of that nerve center of entertainment, the Writer’s Room. From the celebrated sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show to My Favorite Year (starring Peter O’Toole) to Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, the production nerve center of every type of entertainment was deemed (by writers, no doubt) to be the perfect crossover of drama and comedy. And so, we were treated to the trope over and over. But somewhere around the late 90s, early 2000s, it died out thanks in large part to the internet. Collaborations continued to exist, but there was no longer a need for there to be a stifling hot room in Tin Pan Alley or on the Brill Building because inspiration could be shared through email or a computer screen. But, like vinyl records and manual typewriters, a return to the “old way” was bound to happen. And so now we have A Commercial Jingle For Regina Comet, a new musical from Ben Fankhauser and Alex Wyse playing at the DR2 theater on Union Square through November 17.
Quasi-anachronistic scenarios aside, like, why would these two struggling artists choose to rent a work space when they could just hold meetings over Zoom from home? Nevertheless, Regina Comet is a charming story of two childhood friends, simply referred to as Man 2 and Other Man (though somehow Guy, Dude or Boy would be more fitting for the very youthful writers), played by the show’s creators Fankhauser and Wyse. You get how this works. They are struggling to find work when they get a call from the superstar singer Regina Comet (the charming and likable despite the character’s diva-ness, Bryonha Marie Parham). She’s been told, as we hear in the opening scene, by her manager (in a voiceover that sounds suspiciously like Richard Kind) that she needs to appeal to younger audiences. So, she turns to the writerly duo who ultimately, after getting over their shock at being asked, promise her “One Hit Song,” which also turns out to be one of the hit songs of the production.
Along the way, of course, they are starstruck and Man 2 (Fankhauser) falls in love with Regina. Other Man (Wyse) is gay, but seems equally smitten. Mostly he’s just jealous and does what he can to sabotage his friend’s possible blossoming love, even though there’s no chance of any sort of romance. Regina, for her part, seems to have been pushed into the entertainment business and dreams of being a . . . wait for it . . . Astrophysicist. She does have an honorary degree, after all. What’s more, in her youth she was in love with a fellow student who actually became an astrophysicist. Ohhhh kaay. But if you think that’s the implausible part, you’ve got another thing coming. Not that it would matter, but I won’t be providing spoilers.
Regina Comet is a lark, and at heart it’s just a story about being true to yourself and your dreams. The wistful songs are well-written and catchy, and seem to have become part of a genre of teen-angst musicals that are so popular lately. There’s definitely a style (a melange of modern pop and Broadway jauntiness) of these songs that will undoubtedly come to define the 2010s, so much so that many of these numbers wouldn’t feel out of place in Dear Evan Hansen or Be More Chill. But, there’s just not a lot of depth to them and they do little to move the plot along. They’re merely pauses in the storyline and flourishes on points already being made. What Regina Comet benefits from most are strong performances from a company that seems to be having a good time and is enjoying being the first new musical out of the post-quarantine gate.
Director Marshall Pailet moves the action forward and has wisely placed the band halfway on the stages on either side. Music Director Alex Goldie Golden, playing the keyboard, is clearly having a terrific time, stifling laughs at both deliberate and inadvertent (Fankhauser had a costume change challenge that was indeed quite funny and well managed when I attended), but playing perfectly in stride with the action on stage. And Wilson Chin’s set is a maelstrom of post-it notes mixed with some cleverly designed doorway openings and other unexpected ornamentations (I particularly like the book that opens up into a table lamp). A Commercial Jingle For Regina Comet isn’t a musical for the ages, but neither is it one that’s not a crowd pleaser. It’s an entertaining return to the musical stage with thirsty audiences who will be quite happy with their return to the theater.
DR2 Theatre, 101 East 15 Street, NYC thru Nov. 17th. www.reginacomet.com