By Iris Wiener
Forget the giant, fantastical musicals currently on stage. For a true lesson in the power of kindness, optimism and wonder, look no further than Off-Broadway’s The Other Josh Cohen. Small in scope, big in heart, Josh Cohen is a name that you won’t soon forget.
The show opens with two men playing the same lovable, everyman, though one is an incarnation of the down-on-his luck oaf from one year prior. Steve Rosen embodies Josh of yesteryear, recognizable by his unforgiving moustache and a few more pounds than the present Josh, David Rossmer. They’re both dressed in the same plaid, though current Josh comfortably wields a guitar, exuding more confidence and less facial hair (but both Rossmer and Rosen’s Joshes have infectious smiles that would win any audience over). We know from the onset that life will get better for Rosen’s struggling writer, who is as unlucky in love as he is in all vestiges of his life. Before the musical even begins, entering audiences are privy to Josh’s apartment being cleaned out by a burglar, watching as he picks bare everything from his bird-call clock to his Willy Wonka poster.
All Josh is left with is a Neil Diamond CD (the “worst” in a series of three albums) and a “Hang in There, Kitty” page-a-day calendar. With Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, Josh wallows in a relatable lonesomeness, binging on chocolate as he sings, “My worst day is the 14th of February” (in a song ironically titled “My Best Day”). A supporting cast of stellar comedic actors provide an adorably twisty backstory. Kate Wetherhead, Elizabeth Nestlerode, Luke Darnell, Hannah Elless and Louis Tucci portray a panoply of figures ranging from Josh’s parents and old girlfriends to wacky neighbors and a disconnected landlord. Josh’s many trials and failures take a turn when he receives a generous check from a woman in Florida who may or may not be a relative.
As Josh entertains the ethical ramifications of keeping the money without further investigation into why it was sent, audiences are treated to absolute gems that will remain in the lexicon of musical theatre. “Samuel Cohen’s Family Tree” is a brilliantly fun tune about Josh’s debaucherous great-grandfather, in which Josh ruminates on how his relatives managed to find one another (“…and they all found love, except me,” he sings at his own expense). Even Neil Diamond makes a few cameos, his appearance being an ironic amalgamation of Josh’s optimism and hope. In “Hang On” he tells Josh, “Hang in there. For all our sakes, your day has got to come.”
Of course, it is no spoiler to say that Josh’s day does finally come, and when it does it is not without his having experienced self-discovery, an exploration of what it means to be kind to others and himself, and taking responsibility for his own mistakes.
Rossmer and Rosen wrote Josh Cohen over a number of years and have presented it in many incarnations since 2010. The current production only benefits from the addition of Hunter Foster’s excellent direction. He has made powerful moments more poignant through subtle actions, and added entertaining, clever choices to its delivery. Coupled with Rossmer and Rosen’s witty, heartfelt words and Rossmer and Dan Lipton’s orchestrations, Foster’s attentiveness to connecting with the audience is inspiring. As they say in Josh Cohen, it is clearly “beshert” or “meant-to-be” that this team came together.
Rossmer and Rosen have proven their brilliant propensity for fast-paced physical comedy and overall performance in shows such as Peter and the Starcatcher and Spamalot, respectively. They continue to demonstrate it here as Josh, while Rossmer also exhibits his savviness with the piano, violin and guitar. Whereas some musicals feature musicians who enjoy a few moments of acting in the telling of the story (see The Band’s Visit, for one), Josh Cohen features actors who do triple and quadruple duties as versatile musicians and any number of characters (they are even billed as “A Bunch of People” and “A Lot of People,” to fun effect). Wetherhead’s Neil Diamond is especially throaty and deliciously funny, while Tucci’s rendition of Josh’s father (just wait for his epic voicemail) will leave audiences in stitches.
It would be extraordinarily difficult to dislike Josh Cohen, as it celebrates every individual in some aspect of their own life stories. Besides, how many musicals feature full-out numbers with Darth Vader on guitar, Neil Diamond crooning, a cat (straight from the eponymous calendar), and a porn star? It’s beshert that this musical has found a fitting home at the intimate Westside Theatre. Josh describes finding your soulmate as being like “waiting in line for a ride at Disneyland.” Fortunately for theatergoers, Josh Cohen is in and of itself the payoff at the end of the line, the best show audiences will have seen in years.
Photos: Caitlin McNaney
The Other Josh Cohen is running now through February 24th at the Westside Theatre Downstairs, 407 West 43rd Street. 1 hour, 40 minutes. No intermission. www.otherjoshcohen.com.