New musical theater can be summed up as movie adaptations, utter disasters, tourist bait or that awesome show that is playing Off-Broadway and won't probably see the light of day because it is not appealing enough for the mainstream (or investors or theater donors/subscribers). I am prone to loving any show that avoids any of these descriptors (except the last one, obvs) just by virtue of shaking up the status quo.
But nothing could have prepared me for my experience at Nobody Loves You, now open at Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theatre. "Subversive" isn't a superlative I toss around a lot, but after seeing this swift, no-intermission musical (Woah!) come and go with such style and confidence, the final product is a plethora of great-to-"how the HELL did they pull THAT off?" choices, equal parts entertaining and risky.
Because Nobody Loves You is...well, not exactly conceptually sound. In order to win back his girlfriend after breaking up over parting views on a dating reality show, our "protagonist," Jeff, auditions to be on said show. Except, his (ex) girlfriend doesn't get cast while Jeff does...for some reason. Jeff then goes all investigative journalist on the joint for an ontology dissertation and despite not participating in this ridiculous show - rather, he engages in a relationship with Jenny, a production staffer - he remains on the show and his "screw this; I'm writing an expose" persona causes him and the show to become a huge hit. Wait, what? I mean, plot-hole and contrivance-wise, it probably only ranks about a six on a scale of one to Noel Coward, but still...
Regardless of that trepidation, I was stunned. Satire and meta-commentary is a path that can go offensively horrible real fast...like one of those Date or Dance or Epic Movie films that are now on its double-digit runs despite no discernible quality. But Itamar Moses book has wit and sophistication (no, really) that not only reflects the creators self-awareness, but also has fun with the absurdity of the medium.
I was in a typical audience of New Yorkers - both old and older, probably of the higher-IQ type that would never watch a The Bachelor/Bachelorette - and this show seemed, quite eerily in fact, orchestrated for the theater-going type. The shows' most cynical duet, "There is so Much to Hate," where Jeff and Jenny sing about romantic-comedy cliches of all sorts, pretty much had a sign over its head saying, "THIS IS HOW YOU APPROACH ROM-COMS and REALITY TV SHOWS, AMIRIGHT?!" It was also the moment that assured to me that Nobody Loves You is more Scream then Scary Movie.
Gaby Alter's music fit the book stylistically, even though only a few songs really stood out. Most notably, a hilarious duet between the reality show's resident Christian (also named Christian!) and resident hot mess is played straight and garners a lot of laughs watching the mismatched personalities interact in a room with a hot tub. Also, a Twitter song, complete with hashtags, sung by the reality show's obsessive fan? I mean, what's not to love there? Especially when Rory O'Malley, in one of the three roles he essays, absolutely NAILS it with such a charismatic and lively turn.
In fact, a real draw of the show is the performances from the ensemble. In addition to O'Malley, Lauren Molina's hot mess floozy character is multiple shades of bonkers and we love her for it. Autumn Hurlbert's Samantha, the neurotic girl so desperate for love, she puts on a facade just to hold down a man, is awkward and jittery without being outright uncomfortable to watch. And Heath Calvert, playing a Ryan Seacrest-meets-Corny Collins TV show host, is so on the nose, you want to applaud every vain gesture and dead-pan line he delivers because it is gloriously ridiculous and over-the-top.
But the one performance who really made me sit up and take notice was Aleque Reid's. That was in part due to her character's arch - at first, Jenny looked irrelevant to the story and I didn't anticipate she would be a major player. That thought was short-lived though once her solo number came around, which was about her desire to pursue filmmaking as opposed to her "pays the bills, but bleh" job. Reid was perfection in conveying that young twenties artist longing for...you know, a job worthy of her ambition and amicable personality. Let's face it; we know a bunch of Jennys and it was important for her to be organic and accessible - and Ms. Reid was more than up for the task to provide the emotional pull for the show.
It all just clicked for me. Funny line after funny line, so much so that I wish I thought of them first. Also, buoyed with strong performance after strong performance from a young, talented cast and enough good songs to complete the package, Nobody Loves You is far more of a right than a wrong. If you want to attempt the lottery for Matilda or Kinky Boots - or do the unthinkable and pay *gulp* full-price - go right ahead...but this show is a triumph in its own way, much to my surprise. Life after its Off-Broadway run? No objection here.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus