By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Johannes Gutenberg built his first printing press in 1450, and if he’d seen the irresistibly ridiculous Gutenberg! The Musical!, we might still be reading handwritten scrolls — forget about online media.
Gutenberg! began theatrical life as a one-act by Scott Brown and Anthony King, workshopped by the Upright Citizens Brigade. The two-act version, starring the authors, premiered in London in 2006, then went on to an Off-Broadway run. A frenzied exercise that demands actors with precise comedic timing and a game musician to accompany them, it has all that in the show that opened Saturday at Souderton's Montgomery Theater, where two of the region’s busiest actors — Tony Braithwaite and Steve Pacek — would have chewed the scenery if there had been any.
There wasn’t, except for a curtain, scant furniture and unadorned side-stage entrances, which makes Gutenberg! enticing for theater companies: The cast is small. the budget is too, but get the right people and the payoff is huge.
And it's even bigger this time, because Gutenberg! is a co-production; after the Montgomery Theater run ends next month, it moves down Route 309 to Act II Playhouse in Ambler, which is sharing the costs.
Braithwaite is Act II’s new artistic director, and Pacek is associate artistic director of Center City’s 11th Hour Theatre Company. They’re dazzling in their roles as creators pitching their new musical about Gutenberg, giving us a rundown of the show, singing its songs and playing all its parts, aided by hats that label everything from the characters to rats scurrying on the floor.
These guys are especially interested in all the Broadway producers in the a udience — they may be sitting beside you, we’re told. Braithwaite and Pacek are joined in the madcappery by the excellent Sonny Leo on keyboard, playing the part of an unsympathetic accompanist.
We know next to nothing about Gutenberg’s life, so the show is “historical fiction — it’s fiction that’s true!” Pacek tells us. In their show, the guys offer a Gutenberg who invents the printing press in Germany not just to lower the illiteracy rate but because there’s nothing around to read. He falls in love with his assistant, Helvetica, consorts with town drunks, is the intended victim of a mad monk, and rails against a character labeled Anti-Semitic Flowergirl, who is supposed to give this fake musical some weight but seems quite unnecessary to the musical we’re actually watching.
Tom Quinn, Montgomery’s artistic director, gives Gutenberg! an inventive and active staging; the two guys seem to be still for perhaps five minutes of the show’s two acts. The rest of the time, they’re not just switching characters, they’re trying to convince us they’ve created great theater.
The truth is, for all its silliness, Gutenberg! is fine, with charming songs and a fun story — and, in this production, two crafty actors who’ve meticulously plotted every move to appear as though they’ve simply been let loose on a stage.
Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter.
Gutenberg! The Musical! Through Oct. 6 at Montgomery Theater, 124 N. Main St., Souderton. Tickets: $25-$37. Information: 215-723-9984 or www.montgomerytheater.org. From Oct. 9 through Nov. 4, the show will run at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler.