Car Talk: The Musical, book and lyrics Wesley Savick, original music by Michael Wartofsky, Underground Railway Theater & Suffolk University, Central Square Theater, 6/14/12-8/12/12, http://www.centralsquaretheater.org.
Reviewed by Craig Idlebrook
Charisma can carry a show a long way. Just look at what it did for Tom and Ray Magliozzi, a pair of goofball (and genius) brother-mechanics who talked their way into a hit show on National Public Radio. For 35 years, the pair has giggled their way through thousands of calls from car owners with mystery questions, strewing terrible puns and corny humor on the road as they went.
And now, on the eve of the brothers’ retirement from “Car Talk”, they have gotten themselves involved in a musical, written by Wesley Savick, with music by Michael Wartofsky. The mechanics even contribute voice-overs as the (wait for it) Wizard of Cahs. (Say it out loud like you were a Kennedy.) It sounds like a perfect hair-brained scheme that the two brothers would get involved with, a crackpot idea that is just as strange as using a paper-clip to hold together a timing belt during a rainstorm. But can it work? Can the charisma of a pair of public radio personalities translate into an enjoyable evening at the theater?
Yes and no. Car Talk: the Musical is hilarious, and the cast provide a smooth ride through a night of silliness, but the play moves along on duct tape, fumes, and goodwill. Savick, who also directs this production, wisely knows that he hasn’t created a coherent piece of theater, and so he instead goes for a crowd-pleasing mashup of Tom and Ray nostalgia and rapid-fire injections of every single popular musical that a NPR donor could want. The result is really funny, and it makes little sense, putting it on par with such scattershot comedies as the movies Airplane and Naked Gun.
The plot hangs itself loosely on the plight of sad-sack Rusty Fenders (Scott H. Severance), a broken-down and divorced middle-aged man who can’t part with his broken-down and decrepit Kia car. Forced to make a change, he lusts after a sexy sports car, embodied as one Miata. C. LaChassis (Tiffany Chen), and overlooks the reliable friendship of office co-worker Shelia B. Goodfew (Leigh Barrett). (Read this paragraph out loud and groan at the names.)
The plot is flimsy, and the synopsis doesn’t do justice to what actually happens, but really, how does one explain a giant talking car that flashes strobe lights and seems to have a schizophrenic conversation with itself using Tom and Ray’s voice? Or the fact that every song seems to descend into chaos with Broadway characters, from the M.C. of Cabaret to a few of the felines from Cats showing up? Instead of trying to dissect why this is funny, it’s best to accept the premise, check your brain at the door, and enjoy the ride.
Savick does a good job accentuating the play’s strengths and also making sure every member of the cast is on the same page. Barrett particularly stands out for giving her absurd character a sweet and real center. The timing and the tone of the play are impeccable, which helps carry the absurd play along. The director’s only failing is using too much (volume, strobe effects) to make sure we are paying attention, as if he doesn’t trust the source material enough. Wesley, if you’re reading, you had us at Tom and Ray’s first voice-over.
This show will be a hit with any Bostonian seduced over the years by the effortless delivery of two goofballs in a radio studio in Cambridge. A greater test will be whether this will play in Dubuque.