‘[title of show]’ an optimistic debut redux for Willow Creek Theatre Company

[title of show]

Through Aug. 22 at The Treehouse — $15-25

Zachary Mauck (L) and Logan Pratt in ‘[title of show]’ at Willow Creek Theatre Company. — Octavio Lobato-Buendia/WCTC

Willow Creek Theatre Company kicked off its opening season in January 2020, and after just one production, Matt & Ben, they were forced to close their doors [insert groan]. But [title of show] marks a new beginning for WCTC, and this DIY space is aiming to grow community roots in their “Moving Forward” season.

[title of show] is a four-character (well, technically five-character; you’ll see) musical that tells the story of its own creation — that is, it’s a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical. The mirror-in-a-mirror effect of this story takes a happy sledgehammer to the fourth wall and leaves no lamp unshaded. As my much more Broadway-informed husband Max patiently explained, the show is a continual work-in-progress, adapted and updated over the years to reflect the changing circumstances of its rise from humble origins (the show was written in a three-week sprint before the inaugural New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004) through off-Broadway, Broadway and international productions.

As a quick aside: I think this is a fascinating choice of show for a fledgling theatre in this particular historical moment. There is something thematically ripe about doing a show so meta in the tender moment of post-lockdown hope/anxiety we’re in right now. Live, in-person theater has been dead for the last 17 months, and this is its postmodern afterlife.

The cast of ‘[title of show]’ at Willow Creek Theatre Company. — Octavio Lobato-Buendia/WCTC

With a small cast, a pared-down set and props and just one keyboardist accompanying the entire show, [title of show] is absolutely relentless. I admire the energy that this cast was able to maintain despite the challenge. Their performances felt natural and extemporaneous, and the chemistry was impressive for cast members in a new company. Moments of warm, room-filling harmony made the little cast feel three times its size, especially in the show’s two “pillar” numbers (according to the all-knowing Max): “Die, Vampire, Die!” and “Nine People’s Favorite Thing.” The cast delivers these two numbers like they mean it — like the show’s message of reckless, fearless creativity is one the actors and company share.

Zachary Mauck (Jeff) and Logan Pratt (Hunter) were believably chummy as the pizza-stained slacker-geniuses writing the show, and Kiara Keller-Hess was a grounding force against the frenetic pace of the show with her subtle portrayal of Susan. But the standout in this production was Erin Grams as Heidi. Grams has that unmistakable clear, Broadway classic voice that could carry a football field and a half, and her brilliant articulation (especially with no mic!) and vibrato show an impressive mastery of her instrument.

Kiara Keller-Hess (L) and Erin Grams in ‘[title of show]’ at Willow Creek Theatre Company. — Octavio Lobato-Buendia/WCTC

[title of show] is written for and by theater dorks, chock full of Easter eggs for Broadway fanatics and capturing the intimate frenzy of tech week. Though the show does have a tendency to wink so often it can feel a bit twitchy, the tenderest moments are delivered with a lot of heart by a cast whose enthusiasm and vulnerability are palpable straight to the back of the room. [title of show] isn’t just “doughnuts for dinner” — it’s got something to say to this moment, to the question of the futility of creation in the time of COVID-19, to the idea of found community and what it means to follow a dream (while keeping your day job). Willow Creek Theatre Company is still navigating how to make the most of their small space, especially with regard to technical aspects, but they have made an impressive and ambitious start with [title of show], and I’m excited to see what’s next.

You can catch [title of show] at Willow Creek Theatre Company ([327 S Gilbert St, Iowa City]) Sundays Aug. 15 and 22 at 2:30 p.m. and Thursday-Saturday Aug. 19-21 at 7:30 p.m.; tickets are $15 for students, $25 general admission. WCTC requires masks for all audience members when not eating or drinking.

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