“I can tell you you’ll be fine. It’s not the final inning. You’ll soon learn losing everything is only the beginning.”
A voice from the future comforts us with this bittersweet statement at the start of the darling musical, The Other Josh Cohen. There are not too many shows that improbably include Darth Vader, Neil Diamond, and a porn star. Even rarer still that these figures are used to remind us that even when things get you down, do not give up hope. It’s a simple life-affirming message delivered in a silly, joyful package. With melodic songs, quirky charms, and a gee-whiz sweetness, it’s an appealing small-scale musical with delightful performances from it’s seven-member cast.
This musical opened Off-Broadway in 2012. It got additional runs at the Papermill Playhouse and the Geva Theatre in Rochester. Happily it is now back in NYC with much of its original cast. While some story bits have been tightened, it delivers the same warm and fuzzy feeling as when I first saw it back in 2012.
Narrator Josh Cohen (David Rossmer), sans questionable mustache, shows up to tell the story of what happened to him last year. Past Josh Cohen (Steve Rosen with said mustache) is down-on-his-luck and cannot seem to catch a break—he’s single, alone as Valentine’s Day approaches, broke, and now he’s just been robbed of all his worldly possessions except one CD, Volume 3 of the Neil Diamond collection. Narrator Josh promises things are going to get better but he can only watch this schlubbier version of himself make a series of mistakes that will lead to some sort of epiphany. With the spiritual guidance of Neil Diamond and an unexpected envelope in the mail, Josh’s life will change.
While the material can be hokey at times, so can its inspiration: Neil Diamond. The musical is utterly aware of this. The winks, nudges, and sequins are part of it. Lean into it, <Neil Diamond voice> TODAY.
The musical makes jokes out of Willie Wonka and Star Wars references, pagers, answering machines, and parents who dial 1 for long distance. It kindly prods its subjects—single people of a certain age and the families who love them. It’s a show that Gen X children could take their Baby Boomer parents to. Both would recognize themselves onstage and have a loving laugh at each other’s foibles.
Rosen and Rossmer, Broadway performers themselves, have written a selection of Diamond-inspired musical theater and pop tunes with catchy hooks and infectious lyrics. I dare you to stop humming “Neil Life is Better than Real Life.”
With mild, minimal choreography, the cast also doubles as the band. The characters have names like A Lot of People (Kate Wetherhead), A Bunch of People (Louis Tucci), A Bunch of Other People (Hannah Elless), The Rest of the People (Luke Darnell), and At Least One More Person (Elizabeth Nestlerode)–the show makes mirth out of its own scrappy approach.
Wetherhead plays her characters each with colorful precision and a flexibility that makes this show seemingly her perfect vehicle. Her quiet-voiced Irma Cohen, randy Samuel Cohen, and lesbian eBay toy seller Ann, are all stand-outs with different voices, gestures, postures, and ways of being. Hannah Elless, as the smoky-voiced E-Street lesbian cover band member Ann and Cohen family historian, Aunt Bea, shows off her range too.
Rossmer and Rosen, who’ve known each other since they were teens, have a brotherly stage rapport. Rossmer plays up the smoother more polished Josh to Rosen’s more hapless mess. They have beautiful voices and are open-hearted and inviting performers who make their Joshes worth rooting for. In fact, they made me cheer for straight white men for all 90 minutes of their show. In the year of our patriarchal nightmare, 2018, this is a feat.
In the end, the message is for all Josh Cohens—lost, lonely New Yorkers–you never know what might be waiting for you. Rossmer sings, “I know you’ve had a tough year. You’re day is gonna come.” Is it? Thank you for saying so. While not all of life is guaranteed a happy ending, it’s the kindest thing these nice guys can share with us.