Given what an illiterate and pop-culturally dominated society we have become would it be any surprise if the majority of the public imagines “Gutenberg! The Musical!” to be a show about that actor from the “Police Academy” movies? I’ll admit I did, but also because the idea of a musical about the life and times of that other famous Gutenberg—Johann, the inventor of the printing press—seems like such a torpid one. Of course, that’s exactly co-creators and authors Scott Brown and Anthony King’s point, and the springboard from which they mercilessly spoof and cruelly parody lowest-common denominator musicals from the inside-out. Transforming the audience of the Royal George Theatre into would-be Broadway producers, holding a backers’ run-through audition for a would-be mega-musical about Johann, “Gutenberg!” is performed by its “authors” Bud (Breon Bliss) and Doug (Alex Goodrich), both of which engage in some impressive legerdemain by playing dozens of roles using only name-emblazoned baseball caps. What you have then is a musical parody surrounded by a parody about the making of a musical. Got that? And yet, while “Gutenberg!”’s two-performers-and-a-piano set up—think “Forbidden Broadway” on steroids—works brilliantly during its first fifteen minutes, and despite the fact that the songs are actually pretty darn good, I don’t believe this conceit, no matter how strongly written or performed, can support the evening’s additional one hour and twenty-five minute length, no more than an outstanding “SNL” sketch could hope to sustain its initial impact for too long. And while it’s easy to pinpoint “Gutenberg!”’s target, it’s harder to determine its target audience. On the one hand the passionate musical-theater insider seems crucial to its success. On the other, there is a streak of condescension and mean-spiritedness awaiting the lover of musicals that not only reinforces the average playgoer’s prejudices against musicals, but also helps perpetuate the notion of the musical as an inferior entertainment form. At least, I didn’t feel the love. Instead, I marveled at how such a smart musical could stupidly devour the hand that feeds it. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
At Royal George Theatre, 1641 North Halsted, (312)988-9000. Thu-Fri 8pm/Sat 5pm & 9pm/Sun 3pm & 7pm/Wed 8pm. $35. Through July 27.