Review by Cooper Lawrence . . .
Leave it to quirky composer, lyricist and playwright, JOE ICONIS to be at the cutting edge of getting audiences off their zoom meetings, out of their COVID sweatpants and onto their feet. While we can’t declare the pandemic officially over, we can declare the musical theater drought it caused – ancient history. Iconis and his longtime friend and, some would say, muse, GEORGE SALAZAR, single-handedly inched audiences back to the theater, returning with their always sold out and solid cabaret piece, Two Player Game in a revamped sequel.
Two Player Game, at Feinstein’s/54 Below, is a show stopper, for sure, but this revival was special. Iconis and Salazar tapped into our collective relief that an end is in sight. Cabaret performances are back and we can enjoy a night out and party like it’s 2019.
Their true expertise, aside from conjuring images of being the Elton John and Bernie Taupin of their generation, is an ability to create a fly-on-the-wall atmosphere. Their intimate, authentic, and honest banter plays like we have stumbled upon a private conversation between two old friends who know each other too well and might cross a line sharing TMI (too much information) with strangers. Their close relationship and true friendship is part of the act and is equally as important as the song choices.
Lortel Award winner and Drama Desk Nominee, Salazar (Be More Chill, The Lightning Thief, tick tick BOOM and more recently NBC’s Superstore) and Tony Nominee, Iconis (Be More Chill, Broadway Bounty Hunter and NBC’s Smash) begun the night with what has become an anthem, “Broadway Here I Come.” However, the song in this environment with lyrics like, “…I refuse to go numb, Oh, Broadway here I come” just hit differently, eliciting shouts, cheers and applause that did not stop the entire night.
People, so relieved to be back and grateful for the impressive performance, spent most of the night on their feet or in spontaneous applause. Iconis and Salazar treated the crowd of, partly, Be More Chill fans, as evidenced by the “CREEPS” t-shirts and “Smiley Face. Lipstick. Kitty Paw” hats to songs from the Broadway show with, “I Love Play Rehearsal” and “Michael in the Bathroom” arguably, the show’s most defining hit.
The prevailing sense of relief eventually edged into just one of joy, marked by the moment when Salazar walked over to a drum kit as he told us about his father, the drummer (in the audience), playing a three note ditty about a monkey that was a rim shot incarnate. Did they bring an entire drum kit on stage just for this gag? No. Soon enough, we were treated to not just one of the best moments of the night but, arguably, one of the best all around song’s Iconis has ever written, “Vagabond.” Unlike some of his off-beat fish-out-of-water themes, “ Vagabond” reflects the larger expanse and widening embrace Iconis has with Americana. This rock/blues/inspired song had Iconis pounding the keyboard while Salazar shredded up the drums teasing a less Broadway nerd more seasoned rock star performance. They lit the room on fire with edgy, grunge-like vibrato and lyrics like, “…every man’s a vulture, fit to feed” and “The promise of whiskey at the end of the day. I’m just a Vagabond looking for a place to stay.”
Rounding out the 10-song evening and enthusiastic storytelling, we get a glimpse into Iconis’ latest creation, The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical. His “Song of the Brown Buffalo” is yet another clever, raw, and instantly catchy tune performed and brought to life right before our eyes by the gifted Salazar.
Two Player Game is everything you love about theater; showmanship, inventive storylines, relationships that work and beautifully sung performances. It gives us hope that musical theater will soon be back in full force. As Iconis told Theater Pizzazz in April, 2020, “The only thing that continues to give me hope is that you can’t beat theater people.”
Two Player Game at Feinstein’s/54 Below continues from June 22-June 24; Joe Iconis returns solo July 26.