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picture - What's That Smell?Theater Review

by John Topping

published November 21, 2008


What’s That Smell?: The Music of Jacob Sterling

now playing Off Broadway at the New World Stages

open run


David Pittu is the kind of actor that you see on stage and make a point of checking your program to find out who he is.  Such was the case a couple of seasons ago in the underrated (not to mention bafflingly hated) Lovemusik, wherein he portrayed a Bertolt Brecht so sleazy and dirty that you could practically smell him from the mezzanine.  Then last season, he was, for this reviewer, the highlight of Mark Twain’s Broadway debut in Is He Dead?, stealing the show, or at least each scene he was in, playing a variety of All The Other Characters.  Not surprisingly, he was nominated for a Tony Award for both of those shows.


So the announcement that he was starring in his very own musical, What’s That Smell?: The Music of Jacob Sterling (for which he also wrote the book and lyrics, as well as co-directed with Neil Pepe), it wasn’t merely, “Oh, look, David Pittu in his own show,” it was more like “Omigod! David Pittu is in his very own show.  This is going to be awesome!”  And, as an actor and a singer, he indeed creates a vivid character in Jacob Sterling – an aging mediocre composer with a devoted following who never quite hit it big – and has a beautiful voice.  Unfortunately, that is not enough to hold the show together, which, instead of being a brilliantly sharp and funny comment about Broadway musicals and the gay men who love and write them, is (you might say) an intermittently hilarious but mostly lackluster imitation of the very thing it aspires to be.


For better or worse, it’s also the gayest show in town, bumping Arias With a Twist into second most gay.  Although gay men are, of course, not the only kind of men who enjoy musicals, the characters in the world of this play have not heard that piece of news.  The format is of an episode of a TV show (on public access, one would assume) called Composers and Lyricists of Tomorrow (a.k.a. CLOT), hosted by Leonard Swagg (the hysterically funny Peter Bartlett).  If you’ve ever seen Skip E. Lowe Looks At Hollywood, this is sort of the Broadway musical queen version of that.  Tonight’s broadcast is dedicated entirely to the career of Jacob Sterling.  The bubbly studio set by Takeshi Kata literally sets the stage for the antics to come.  Swagg and Sterling chat about the (low) rise and (steady) plateau of Sterling’s career, a compendium of missed opportunities and bad luck, punctuated with Sterling’s own interpretations of his songs as he plays the piano (remarkably faked by Pittu until you notice that the directions of the high and low notes are sometimes reversed).


Most of the laugh-out-loud humor is in the chatting between songs.  Talking about his culinary tastes, Sterling remarks, “You might say that I have a different nationality in my mouth every night of the week.”  If you didn’t get that, you just might not be gay enough to see this show.  The songs (music by Randy Redd), with intentionally bad lyrics that reflect the sad state of lyric-writing in today’s musicals, are sung ever so earnestly by Sterling (with occasional help from Swagg and, later in the show, by a trio of Sterling’s “students”).  Watching a good actor playing a character who takes his artistic crap too seriously is amusing for a good while, but the conceit doesn’t sustain the length of an evening.


The smartest number is at the end, when, in the chronology of his career, we finally arrive at the present day, and at last Jacob Sterling has made it to Broadway!  But it’s a new Broadway; a Broadway experiment for which he is the perfect composer.  The show is called Shopping Out Loud, and it’s, essentially, a Broadway adaptation of commercials, wherein different companies have underwritten the cost of the production,.  Tickets are 75 cents, and you can go in and out as you please.  Onstage the singing and dancing is all about The Gap, or Ann Taylor Loft, or Starbucks, or any number of other conglomerates you can’t avoid, and we are “treated” to a sample medley (the ending of which is, musically, the funniest moment of the play).  It’s a brilliant vision of the twisted direction that the fusion of Broadway and commercialism could conceivably go, and the realization of how close to home it could be hitting might choke your laughs short.


johntopping @


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