Another Look at Both Joshes By Ron Fassler
I often adhere to an opinion from the British writer Tobias Hill, who once said, “I hate clever-cleverness, but I love good honest cleverness.” That was brought to mind last night while I was happily engaged at the new off-Broadway musical The Other Josh Cohen, which opened this past November to excellent reviews. With no Broadway openings scheduled between now and mid-March, you might do yourself the favor and head west on 43rd Street to the Westside Arts Theatre and take in the pleasures of this original, sweet and adorable musical.
The brainchild of composer/book writers David Rossmer and Steve Rosen (who play both Josh Cohens—more on that later), the show has been developed and workshopped over an eight-year period, beginning in 2010. It was mounted off-Broadway for the first time in 2012 at the SoHo Rep, where it received eight Drama Desk Award nominations, as well as a 2014 Paper Mill Playhouse production in New Jersey. Now it’s back off-Broadway, with Hunter Foster as its new director. Best known as an actor (the original Bobby Strong in Urinetown), I can’t attest to what he’s brought to this version, as I haven’t seen the others, but the proof is in the pudding. The comedy is pitched at just the right level, and he has coaxed excellent performances from a multi-talented ensemble, many of whom play a variety of roles, in addition to a variety of instruments.
Rossmer and Rosen (even their names sound similar), play two different versions of the title character. In direct address to the audience at the top of the show, we are introduced to two identically dressed guys: the before and after Josh Cohens. Narrator Josh (as he’s identified in the program) is sunnier and in a lot better shape than the other Josh, who has a bit of a belly and a cheesy mustache (much on that is discussed… and eventually resolved in true comic fashion). Narrator Josh informs us that he is the result of a positive change that came about after a set of disastrous circumstances that derailed the other Josh from achieving any degree of normalcy in his attempts to carve out a decent life for himself. A familiar figure (the neurotic Jewish New Yorker), it’s to the writer’s credit that they do not force hoary clichés on us. We get the Yiddish word bashert (destiny) tossed around (and not casually), but I was grateful that there weren’t pickles and knishes jokes thrown in. We’ve moved beyond the old Borsht Belt humor that used to pass for contemporary comedy in the fifties and sixties, and it was a relief to me that many of these old tropes were passed over.
Josh is a generally unlucky guy, evident from the get-go as we watch his apartment being robbed during the pre-show. A burglar dressed in black dismantles the set, stealing everything from Josh’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory poster, to his entire set of CD’s. Left with only “Neil Diamond’s Greatest Hits Part 3,” it later allows for one of the best songs in the show, titled “Neil Life,” as well as for one of the cast members (female) to play Diamond. This sort of fanciful aspect to the storytelling is well-done, never overstays its welcome, and keeps the show moving in a swift and mostly surprising fashion. And forgive me for purposely leaving out a major plot point, upon which the show hinges, but since I didn’t know it going in, I don’t see why I should reveal it here. Go and be surprised by it. I certainly was.
As the Josh Cohens, Rossmer and Rosen are first-rate. In addition to the former’s abilities on piano, violin and guitar, he is a jovial host; an entirely winning presence. As his more morose counterpart, Rosen displays a hangdog look that is oddly endearing. And though he works up a sweat, offers a cool characterization. The supporting cast are all supremely talented, not only as actors, but as musicians. The ensemble includes Louis Tucci, Luke Darnell, Elizabeth Nestlerode, Cathryn Wake and Jane Bruce, who in a series of roles (including Neil Diamond), excelled in subtle and distinct characterizations that were worthy of Catherine O’Hara or Kate McKinnon.
The songs are tuneful, with lyrics that are well-rhymed and sit on the music in just the right way. There’s real skill at work here, much in the way it was a pleasure to fall into the joy of an original musical a few years back like Dear Evan Hansen (which also began its life off-Broadway). If you read the bios in the Playbill for Rosen and Rossmer, not only have they a number of Broadway shows to their credits as performers, but they are highly prolific as writers, with some very exciting upcoming projects in the works. It’s easy to imagine that we are going to see a lot more from them.
In the meantime, check out The Other Josh Cohen. Any fan of musical theatre will get their money’s worth from this hip, fun, and yes—clever musical.
Photos: Caitlin McNaney
The Other Josh Cohen is at the Westside Arts Theatre, 407 W. 43rd Street. http://otherjoshcohen.com/#home