Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Business of Funny Jews Or Is That Jews In A Funny Business? - Review

Jewtopia - Diesel Playhouse - Toronto
Funny Business The Musical - Diesel Playhouse Cabaret - Toronto

I happened to see Funny Business The Musical this past weekend at the Diesel Playhouse in Toronto, and then I saw Jewtopia in the same playhouse last night thanks to Dan at The TV Addict (who beautifully did the website and program!).

I had heard about Jewtopia since its record breaking runs in LA and Off-Broadway in NY and though not being a Jew, I figure being Chinese, I'll probably get the jokes if they get too inward since, a) as I always say, Jews and Chinese people are basically the same except for our different take on pork (we love it, Jew's don't) and b) we drive a hard sale and Jews drive a hard bargain. Badaboom!

So, as much as I wanted to enjoy the comedic play, the mildly amusing play seemed to lumber more in its stereotypical jokes that I felt had played out on TV shows long time ago. The plot itself is simple enough, and can be summed up wonderfully in the two taglines I've seen: "A Goy Meets Girl Love story" and about a Gentile who wants to marry a Jewish girl so that he never has to make a decision for himself ever again. Badaboom!

It's a simple enough premise and cute enough, as we meet two friends reconnecting at 30. Chris O'Connell is the gentile who is hot for Jewish girls, while Adam Lipschitz is the Jew who needs to marry Jewish, so not to disappoint his mother. They decide to help each other out in the dating scene. Chris pretends to be Jewish. Adam teaches Chris about the intricacies of being Jewish (with a terrific scene in a restaurant about how to order the Jewish way). Chris teaches Adam about dating in Jewtopia (aka: J-Date). Throw in every Jewish stereotype in the Torah and hilarity should ensue.

And it does, in parts (mostly in the first act), but mostly due to the terrific performers Dave Kerr (directly above) and Matt Baram (above Kerr) who play Chris and Adam (respectively). Baram sort of gumbies around in the part of Adam, rolling with every Jew joke until it passes over (badaboom...). Dave Kerr (the new roving-reporter on Canadian Idol this past season, a role that doesn't have a counterpart on the American edition), who I don't think is a great actor but has enormous appeal and likability. Kerr and Baram both belong on a sitcom and while theatre is usually associated with a deeper darker performance style, Kerr and Baram set the tone for a light and comic evening, now if only the play were actually as good as its performers.

The rest of the cast does what it can with the material they were given, with Jeanie Calleja giving the most over-the-top performance (which in this case, was actually a good thing) as rotating roles including all of Adam's different dates and Adam's teenage sister. The second act's family dinner scene plays out like an awkward embarrassing sitcom, with some tasteless jokes for good measure and even Kerr and Baram aren't able to save the play in the end. While it started well enough, as an enjoyable if not totally original script (with hints of what I would imagine the play version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Mambo Italiano would have been like), Jewtopia sort of spins itself into a big mess.

Funny Business The Musical was one of the breakout hits from this years Toronto Fringe Festival and is now receiving a bigger presentation in a lengthened edition (especially now that everyone is chasing The Drowsy Chaperone/Evil Dead The Musical dream). Again, the premise is pretty simple. A group of office workers have been forced to put on a talent show as a way to build team morale. If this sounds awfully like something Michael Scott would do, it probably is, with some catchy tunes sung by some excellent actors in basically an episode of The Office The Musical. We know the office jokes already, but now it's in SONG!

Within the 5 person cast, we get 5 stock characters, including the bumbling boss, the smarmy go-getter, the bitter female exec, the young naive secretary and the innocent unknowing intern. They sing songs like "Close the Deal", "Bottom Line" and "hi speed LAN" as they scheme, back stab and fall in love. All in a typical day at the office. All while trying not to get fired. It's cute if not revolutionary.

Lana Carillo (above right) has a particularly beautiful voice as Brie, the Filipino secretary, (though I've heard about her voice for years since she joined my high school's musical the year after I left, and ended up being friends with all my friends though we've never actually met), but the breakout for me was Trevor Campbell (above with Carillo) as Jack, the innocent intern who is in love with Brie. The guy was like a young likable Jim Carrey who never broke out of his geeky character, who reminded me a bit of Henry on Ugly Betty. Campbell has a beautiful singing voice (apparently he has a CD out) but even better, was a complete riot every time he was on stage (even if he was only in the background). His face is adorable but his facial features are comic gold, and his whole body seems thrown into a geek contortion, incapable of being cool. Get this guy into another musical stat!

Jewtopia runs until Dec. 1st, Funny Business The Musical runs until November 4th.

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