In ‘Howard Barnes,’ a self-aware love letter to musicals

The cast of 'The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes.' Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Howard Barnes shoves a wandering jazz hand behind his back and grits his teeth, to no avail: He’s gotta sing. His life has turned into a musical, and he has no idea how to stop it.

The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes doesn’t exactly represent a revolution at Village Theatre, which has nurtured Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond’s self-aware love letter through several developmental stagings. But it does say something that Village, newly helmed by artistic director Jerry Dixon, has chosen as its season opener a meta-musical with a sometimes esoteric sense of humor. As the show describes itself in song, it’s “modern but traditional.” Self-referential humor is edging toward the traditional at this point, but given the stolid adherence to convention in most new musicals (including many Village has staged in recent years), Howard Barnes gets points for tiptoeing outside of the lines.

Howard is a slightly schlubby, emotionally detached man, played perfectly by Joshua Carter as the type of dude who wears a New York Rangers jersey to bed, has a The Jerk one-sheet on his wall and exults in planetarium laser shows. Carter tamps down his musical-comedy chops at first, embodying the guy who scoffs at the notion that people would just start singing.

A less than 100-minute show with no intermission, Howard Barnes doesn’t belabor its setups, and director Brandon Ivie keeps things moving at an agreeably headlong pace. It’s only minutes before Howard starts hearing inexplicable underscoring and wakes up to a world where a plucky band of strangers urges him in song to have a good day or ask out that new woman at his office. Howard can only freeze in his tracks, panicked.

Fortunately for Howard, that new woman, Maggie (Taryn Darr, cranking the dial up to max on neurotic ingénue), is a musicals aficionado who offers to help him figure his way out of this song-and-dance purgatory. Howard can’t figure out why his life has suddenly transformed, but suspects it has something to do with his ex (Jasmine Jean Sim), who shows up to corral him into flashbacks and taunt him for his lack of emotional availability. Sim’s gleeful malevolence arrives via showgirl, puppet and Javert—all delightful.

Howard Barnes’ sense of humor is multivalent, though it’s strongest in its use of direct parody (a “Cell Block Tango” spoof features Howard’s aggrieved exes, with much more trivial punchlines for “pop” and “six”) or gags about the form’s minutiae (one character laments she only gets a “book scene”). Less fruitful: a song where Maggie summarizes the plot of most of the popular musicals of the last 30 years or an ensemble number where the stage swells with Alexander Hamilton, Mary Poppins, Annie, Peter Pan, Tracy Turnblad and Evan Hansen among the throng. These aren’t jokes so much as lists. (But props to costume designer Rose Pederson for the spot-on re-creations.)

And then there’s the show’s weirder streak, channeled into Stephen Von Schwartzenheim (Jeff Steitzer), a musical theater genius who supposedly holds the secret to freeing Howard. A monster of ostentation with a Liberace pompadour and a glorious black-and-gold cape, Von Schwartzenheim compares musicals to a sentient dildo and recommends murder. Steitzer relishes every one of his absurd lines, especially an extremely niche joke about the unwieldy title of that forgotten piece of poverty porn Precious. About three people laughed at a recent performance. I was one of them.

Howard Barnes is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too show, eschewing and embracing the unreality of grand musical gestures almost in the same breath. Howard’s growth is predicated as being dependent on opening his heart to another person, but the show only requires him to open up his heart to showtunes. Hey, good enough.

Howard Barnes is less form-busting than fun. Kooman’s score is peppy and bright, and Village’s production is filled out with a ridiculously talented ensemble (Nick DeSantis, Hannah Schuerman and Greg McCormick Allen among them), all pitching in bits of joy as utility players. Who wouldn’t want to live in a world with them?

The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes runs through Oct. 21 in Issaquah and Oct. 26-Nov. 18 in Everett.