Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Review: 'Gutenberg! The Musical!'

This musical at Montgomery Theater, and then at Act II Playhouse, is about making a musical focused on the life of the inventor of the printing press -- and it's irresistibly ridiculous. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews.

Review: 'Gutenberg! The Musical!'

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In "Gutenberg! The Musical!" Sonny Leo plays keyboards in the background while Tony Braithwaite (left), and Steve Pacek perform. Photo by Bill D’Agostino.

By Howard Shapiro

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,, 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 From Oct. 9 through Nov. 4, the show will run at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler.

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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