When trying to sum up A Commercial Jingle for Regina Comet—the new musical by Alex Wyse and Ben Fankhauser making its local debut courtesy of the Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City—an old theatre joke comes to mind: What’s this show about? Oh, it’s about 80 minutes, without intermission.
Because the trajectory of Regina Comet is enjoyable but erratic and, ultimately, immaterial. The premise is ridiculous, the characters are paper-thin, the book feels more like an outline (this happens…and then, somehow, that happens…), and the dialogue is at times natural to the point of open-ended awkwardness. But…it’s very funny, and the songs are charming, catchy, and keep everything in orbit—as does the all-in energy of the talented three-member ensemble and remarkable three-piece band.
The title character, an almost-over-the-hill pop diva who once filled arenas and infamously claimed the band Hanson’s virginity “in one fell swoop,” is trying to regain relevance by releasing a new perfume—er, fragrance—named…Relevance. Her team decides she needs a jingle and accidentally connects her with two literal no-name songwriters (in the program, they are simply “Man 2” and “Other Man”). We learn little about them beyond, as Other Man (I think) explains to Man 2, “You’re single, gay, and mean. And I’m a beautiful stallion who wears too much khaki.” Also, they happen to be Jewish—having formed their dynamic duo one summer at Camp Rosenblatt with their apparently legendary production of Sukkot, Mama, Sukkot (it would help a little if either of the actors knew how to pronounce “sukkot”).
After years filling notebooks with ideas that never lead to hit songs (“A spark is not a fire…”), could their collaboration with Regina be the big break that catapults them to fame alongside their idol, Barry Manilow (yes, seriously)? Well, not before a confusing, jealous rift between the partners threatens to torpedo the project…and then things all work out happily, improbably, and differently than expected.
Eventually—at least, occasionally—the unrelenting ridiculousness slides into the sublime: “I read she has an honorary degree in astrophysics,” Other Man says. “That makes sense,” Man 2 replies. “Because her voice is so…good.” (I don’t know why…but that’s hilarious.)
Yet, again, if this show is about anything…it’s the songs. The creators, Wyse and Fankhauser—both veteran Broadway performers—also starred in the original production, which may explain why what they’ve created is really a loosely connected showcase of witty musical numbers. A few—such as the recurring anthem “One Hit Song” and the satisfying finale, “Say Hello”—might have you singing along before the last refrain.
Indeed, under the direction of Damron Russel Armstrong, the KC Black Rep cast clearly enjoys the ride, and their verve is infectious. Tiffany L. Harper imbues Regina with the necessary star quality and impressive vocals; Ryan Dervin and Patrick Sheeley make a fine comedy team, landing laughs on lines that, in retrospect, aren’t really jokes. Sheeley, in particular, shows off his smooth voice in songs such as “Conflict of Interest.” And all three performers together demonstrate great chemistry—and harmony. Ditto for the musicians under the direction of Julie Danielson, who also handles the keyboards.
Keith Townsend’s small, cluttered set appropriately conveys the writers’ claustrophobia-inducing office, while Ludivina Grajeda’s lighting makes good use of the wide-open, downstage playing space, as does Christopher Barksdale-Burns’s choreography (especially in the delightfully staged “Connecting the Dots”).
Notably, the show world-premiered off-Broadway in September 2021 as the first new musical to debut there following the pandemic shutdown. At the end of last year, it became available for licensing, and KC Black Rep, to its credit, is one of the first theaters to take a chance on it. So—much as with, say, an actual comet—the show’s appearance on our horizon is a novel and rare occasion, passing through this weekend.
And like a comet, it burns brightly, briefly. It’s fast, it’s flashy, it never crashes or does any damage—in fact, it leaves almost no trail at all. It’s a spark, not a fire. But it’s fun while it lasts.
“A Commercial Jingle for Regina Comet,” a production of The Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City, runs through June 11 at MCC Longview Community College Cultural Arts Center, 500 SW Longview Road, in Lee’s Summit. For more information, visit www.brtkc.org.