If you grew up a theater-besotted kid in the mid-2000s, stop reading this review and immediately buy tickets for Which Way to the Stage, an uproarious world premiere from MCC Theater. Playwright Ana Nogueira has penned a love letter to the geeks, queerdos, and obsessives who rushed home from school and logged onto BroadwayWorld, the Spring Awakening cast recording blasting from their iPods. (Hello, my name is Cameron, and I’m a Guilty One.)
The delightful nostalgia begins before anyone speaks a word of dialogue. As the audience finds their seats in the Newman Mills Theater, a pre-show playlist cycles through the greatest hits of early-aughts showtunes. The people around me hummed along to “Astonishing” from Little Women and bopped in their seats to “So Much Better,” the iconic first-act closer from Legally Blonde: The Musical. When I heard Idina Menzel suggestively intone the opening phrases of “The Life of the Party,” I felt compelled to find a fellow queen and rehash the Lippa versus LaChiusa Wild Party debate.
This pleasing prelude serves as more than a stroll down memory lane. It offers a window into the psyches of Judy (Sas Goldberg) and Jeff (Max Jenkins), the endearing but slightly broken adults that those musical-theater teens grew into. Nogueira sets her scene in 2015, with the friends entering their early thirties in a general state of imbalance. Judy sells real estate when she’s not auditioning for disappointing summer theater gigs that she rarely books. Jeff increasingly turns to drag for creative expression, having been told time and again that he’s too fey to make a believable leading man.
When the pair aren’t pursuing what remains of their dreams, they stalk the stage door of If/Then, hoping to secure an autograph from their mutual idol, the wickedly talented Adele Dazeem (née Idina Menzel). Set designer Adam Rigg faithfully recreates the façade of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, with a rave USA Today review plastered on the side of the building and Zina Saunders’ memorable poster art watching over the friends in their quest. Judy longs to affix Idina’s signature to her original RENT playbill—she saw the original cast at twelve—and Jeff hopes to invite her to a tribute cabaret where he’ll perform “Over the Moon.”
As they wait in vain for their hero to appear, Jeff and Judy deconstruct the finer points of Patti LuPone’s performance in Gypsy, the upcoming Hamilton juggernaut, and why the original production of Chicago (which neither of them was alive to see) is vastly superior to the long-running revival. Nogueira writes unapologetically for an audience that will get her references with no prompting, and while this might limit the play’s long-term appeal as a regional property, it proves absolutely thrilling to watch the inside jokes land in a room of receptive viewers. Her reasoning for why Bernadette Peters is more naturally suited to play Mama Rose than LuPone is dead-on, I must also say.
But the show is more than just a dramatization of arguments you might hear any night of the week at the bar at Glass House Tavern. Nogueira embeds serious and resonant topics into her lighthearted premise. Jeff and Judy encapsulate the fraught dynamics of friendships between straight women and gay men; an early exchange in which Jeff explains why he’s uncomfortable with Judy using the word “faggot” is surprisingly tense. The introduction of Mark (Evan Todd), a hunky bisexual actor who shows romantic interest in both Judy and Jeff brings with it the politics of masc/femme presentation in terms of traditional casting practices. Jeff drunkenly lobs a j’accuse at queer composers: “We’re holding the pen, but we think they hate us. And maybe they do! So we end up telling other people’s stories. And leave each other with the dregs.”
At various points, the proceedings also veer into the gender politics of drag, female beauty privilege, and the predatory behaviors women face in rehearsal rooms. (The action takes place prior to the #MeToo movement.) It’s a lot to explore in two intermission-less hours, and Nogueira doesn’t always guide her topics of discussion to their fully realized conclusions. But it’s impossible not to respect the ambition of a play that seeks to be so funny and so probing at the same time—and one that succeeds in both senses more often than not.
And it’s hard to imagine a better realization than Mike Donahoe’s slickly styled production, which beautifully captures the aching sadness beneath the characters’ performative bravado. The show is cast to perfection. Goldberg mines Judy’s insecurities and defense mechanisms for all they’re worth, and Todd brings three-dimensionality to a character that could easily come across as a shallow dudebro. In what should be a star-making performance, Jenkins communicates the conflicted stance of so many gay men who desperately love an art form, and an industry, that doesn’t always love them back. Michelle Veintimilla rounds out the ensemble in a trio of small but pivotal roles, all superbly realized.
Spoiler alert: Menzel never appears. Yet by waiting for their power-belting version of Godot, Jeff and Judy learn and grow enough to make themselves the stars of their own story—a fact expertly realized in the play’s final moments, which are thrillingly choreographed by Paul McGill. Which Way to the Stage will enchant the ex-theater kid, the Hell’s Kitchen show queen, and anyone deep enough in the Wicked weeds to understand a Jackie Burns joke. But it will also make you think, between laughs, about the deeper issues that permeate a beloved but problematic subculture.