Gutenberg! The Musical! looks good on paper — and in the flesh

If you've ever wondered what occurs at a backer's audition for a Broadway musical, you're in luck. Two aspiring playwrights named Bud Simon and Doug Davenport are here in St. Louis performing a reading of their new project Gutenberg! The Musical! at the Ivory Theatre. This bare-bones presentation might be a little more scaled down than what Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince have spent their lives doing. But not even Steve and Hal could top Bud and Doug for sheer sincerity and giddy, exclamation-pointed enthusiasm.

And who would rain on their parade? These fellows are really on to something.

Surely the world needs a musical about Johann Gutenberg, the fifteenth-century German inventor responsible for the first book to be printed from movable metal type — especially when that musical also makes probing observations about the Holocaust. ("Every important musical," we're told, "has to tackle at least one incredibly serious issue.") And although a combination of Renaissance and Holocaust might seem a bit of a reach to more prosaic minds, Doug and Bud have taken Mel Brooks' History of the World — Part One as their model for historical accuracy. (It's good to be the printer.)

Their songwriting credo is simple: If words rhyme, they're a lyric. It never occurs to them that their lyrics make no sense and are sometimes dense; hence, they lose their credence. (For Bud and Doug, that would be a song, right there.) One of the show's most stirring, if bewildering, anthems repeats the nonsensical line, "We eat dreams." "Tomorrow Is Tonight" is equally loopy. Yet don't be surprised if you leave the theater with a dumb lyric like "Gutenberg, darn tootin' berg" knocking around your brain. Or humming a little ditty called "Biscuits," which we're told is a charm song — in other words, it has nothing to do with the plot. Since nothing in this entire frivolity has anything to do with anything, Gutenberg might best be described as a charm show.

As Doug and Bud, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of musical theater, Steve Isom and Ben Nordstrom are a constant delight. Close your eyes and listen to their voices as they assume the various roles of the illiterate peasants of Schlimmer, Germany. At times it sounds like Marty Feldman meets Mortimer Snerd. Isom (sporting an incongruous yet perfect bow tie) is the rock around which Nordstrom does his leaps and pirouettes. Yet the evening's most affecting moment comes when Nordstrom's Bud is earthbound, quietly standing back by the piano out of the light, watching Isom's Doug sing one of Johann's solos. The supportive look in Bud's eyes is downright touching.

This is the key that director Bobby Miller has tapped into: Somewhere between the zaniness and spoofery, Gutenberg! The Musical! (written and first performed by Scott Brown and Anthony King) acknowledges the importance of yearning. Maybe we all do eat dreams. And because these two innocents care so deeply for each other and for theater in general, we in turn care for them. Applause might be a narcotic for the actor, but it also provides a catharsis for the viewer. On opening night when Isom and Nordstrom returned to begin Act Two, the audience burst into spontaneous applause, as if to say, "Welcome back, we've missed you." In a very short time, Doug and Bob had become our newest best friends; the pleasure of their company is all ours.

Choreographer Ellen Isom has been more concerned with movement than with dance; one suspects that she is much responsible for the evening's stealth sense of buoyancy. Musical director Henry Palkes, who maintains an admirably brisk pace, is another strong asset. Palkes' thatch of white hair seems to be an extension of the stuffed cat that sits atop his piano. Intentional? Kismet? There's no way of knowing. But when you're on a roll, everything comes together for good — even stuffed cats.