2003 saw the release of The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s seemingly semi-autobiographical clusterfuck of a movie, concerning a man named Johnny, played by Wiseau himself, whose seemingly perfect life is destroyed by betrayal from evil women who “change their minds all the time” and the men in their thrall. It’s pretty much the movie version of every shitty break-up song some lead singer has ever forced on their poor, unsuspecting band.
With that in mind, maybe it was always obvious that the next step for the now-cult classic would be a musical. Chicago’s pH Productions have rushed to realise this grand idea with aplomb and The Room: The Musical currently plays weekly at the pH Comedy Theatre. How does it all work out? Is it any good? Spoiler: The answer is yes. You can keep reading though.
When attempting to skewer something as obnoxiously awful as The Room, there’s a temptation to just play off the audience memories of the movie and have that do the heavy lifting for the performance, like when Family Guy gets lazy and goes “Remember this thing from the 80s? Is that funny?” Luckily, The Room: The Musical sidesteps this potential pitfall and produces something that is legitimately funny and entertaining in its own right.
The musical combines details and dialogue from the original film with its own brand of humour and awareness of the film’s shortcomings that allows the production to have greater continuity and depth in its characters while maintaining the same almost endearingly-awkward atmosphere that made the original such a belated-hit.
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Matt Gottlieb leads as Johnny, looking just right in an ill-fitting suit, which goes well with his bad hair and stilted talking. He doesn’t quite get the accent right because, you know, no one in the world has or ever sounded like Tommy Wiseau. Gottlieb makes Johnny sound more like a confused, naive generic foreigner from a fake European country in some comedy movie about fish out of water foreigners coming to America whereas Wiseau sounds like a Frankenstein monster with a cold impersonating Otto von Bismark. In fact, Gottlieb portrays Johnny so well and so clueless and simple that he comes off as much more sympathetic than the original character. This is pretty commendable as Johnny, the character, is a sinew-y ball of misogyny, impotent rage and bare ass.
Jess Herron, meanwhile, takes Lisa and makes her a much more fleshed-out and interesting character while keeping her a complete bitch and when paired up with Nick De Fina‘s hilariously clueless Mark (“I mean… the candles, the music, the sexy dress? What’s going on here, Lisa?”) and Tristan Tanner‘s fantastically obnoxious and cancer-ridden Claudette the laughs come hard and fast. The song Men! by Herron and Tanner, may be the entire productions stand out track, although act one closer I’ll Show Them All gives Les Miserables‘ One Day More a run for its money (hey, I’ve never seen Philip Quast doing jumping jacks during on-stage simulated sex) so it’s a close call.
Denny, meanwhile, played by Dan Wright, takes Wiseau’s (after the fact) intentions for the character and spins that into gold all by himself. Turning Denny into a complete mental regressive with a fascination with balloons may not be the most subtle characterisation but it certainly makes you laugh, and plays well into the ending. Wright is also responsible for some of the musicals best visual gags and, man, is he strong. Either that or De Fina is made of hollow bird bones. Go see it, you’ll see what I mean.
Steve Hund and Mary Walsh don’t have much to play with as blow job-fixated Mike and clearly-on-prozac Michelle but then, that’s the point, isn’t it? What they do, they do well and their intrusion into a plot which really doesn’t involve them is always welcome. Symbol of Love and Act 2 Opener give them the chance to bust out their singing skills and they’re damn good but the comedy lies in their superfluousness and they can really riff on it. They really make what could have been a one note joke work well throughout the show.
Eric Oren, as the Sexy Troubador, makes The Room‘s painful R&B tracks bearable and I dare you to watch the movie after seeing the musical without wishing he was there to capture your attention during the awful sex scenes. Gottlieb, Herron and De Fina, meanwhile, make the musicial’s rendition of Tommy Wiseau’s
chance to write himself into the sex he clearly feels he is owed fully necessary and vital love scenes (trimmed in this production to You Are My Rose and Crazy) much more tolerable. There’s certainly more dexterity and passion involved and unlike Wiseau, everyone involved knows that the belly button is not, in fact, where the vagina is located.
While I could destroy the meaning of the phrase “single out” by giving particular praise to De Fina, Wright, Herron and Tanner for their amazing work, if I were forced to pick just one stand out performer from the night I saw the performance I’d certainly have to consider Brett Mannes. As Chris-R, Peter and Steven (also, almost as himself, befuddled by the switch from Peter to Steven), Mannes is extremely impressive in his roles. He shifts between the mannerisms of his three roles pretty seamlessly and shines in two of the productions best songs, I Want My Money and Reefer Madness. Besides which, if nothing else, his outfit as Steven is worth the price of admission alone.
While I’ve mentioned the performers, the songs are the key, aren’t they? Brad Kemp and Wally List draw from a variety of influences, including some skilled variants of The Room‘s infamous main theme to create a wonderful musical backdrop to director and writer Jason Geis‘ skilled work. Even the chorus get more to do than just waft around in the background awkwardly and I know for a fact that Jamie Jirak, Scott Hogan and Sharla Beaver, in addition to Patrick Serrano and Ben Palin drew out some of the loudest laughs on the night from the eager audience.
From the opening song, Oh Hai, which reveals the phrase to be the lazy script-writing it is to the jaunty Thinking & Girls and onto Tanner’s fantastic showtune turn in You Can’t Live On Love and into the wonderfully surreal Finale that will surely leave everyone going home happy, The Room: The Musical is a labour of love in the most literal sense. With the aid of Thayer Greenberg, Michelle Marquardt and Drew Current, Geis has put together a fully realised work, full of depth and craft and care. It’s amusing to think that if Tommy Wiseau had put half as much effort into his awkwardly surreal, laughably egotistical star vehicle (for himself, of course), then there wouldn’t be such a cult movie to base this wonderful musical on.
The Room: The Musical is currently playing at the pH Comedy Theatre in Chicago, every Saturday at 10:30 PM. Visit their website for details.