'Gutenberg! The Musical!' review — Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad are comedy masters

Read our review of Gutenberg! The Musical! on Broadway, which reunites the original stars of The Book of Mormon at the James Earl Jones Theatre through January.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

There’s a hint of something super special when a show punctuates the title with an exclamation point. Broadway’s latest arrival, Gutenberg! The Musical!, doubles down. It’s a deliberately cheeky move – one that’s fitting for a kicky comedy that throws caution, and facts, to the wind.

The show is a roughly 2-hour sketch – one that’s clever and filled with laughs but too long and overstuffed to ward off diminishing returns. Still, the production provides a prime showcase for the talents of Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells, two bright stars from The Book of Mormon who are game for anything – and then some.

They work overtime capering and vamping as geeky Jersey boys Bud (Gad) and Doug (Rannells), wannabe showmen pitching their musical about Johannes Gutenberg, the 15th-century inventor of the printing press, to potential producers in the audience. As in, you.

Due to a supposed lack of research material, Bud explains they took the “historical fiction” approach. “It’s fiction… that’s true,” he exclaims like a Red Bull-charged cheerleader.

It’s a funny bit, and it was in 2007. That’s when the show by longtime collaborators Scott Brown and Anthony King premiered off Broadway under the direction of Alex Timbers. Gutenberg! was a small-scale affair then. Brown and King have since earned a Tony nomination for their book for Beetlejuice. Timbers, who directs Gutenberg! again on Broadway, won a Tony for Moulin Rouge! The Musical (single exclamation point).

Save for a few updates and tangy tweaks – i.e., name-dropping Timothée Chalamet and knowing nod to the recent glut of stage fairy tales told from “the lady’s point of view” – Gutenberg! is much the same story-wise as in the downtown run.

Bud and Doug imagine that Gutenberg runs afoul of a dastardly monk who doesn’t want townies to know how to read. Novelty numbers about that mean monk, biscuits, and romance don’t cry out to be heard again, but they are all amusing at the moment. The show nerds out while commenting on musical theatre best practices, including “I want” songs, motifs, callbacks, and turntables. Inside baseball? You bet, but it works.

The show's crowning theatrical concept remains: Bud and Doug play every character at this backer’s audition, using monogrammed baseball caps to rapidly roll through 30 roles – Gutenberg, his crush, Helvetica, a monk, a young monk, a drunk, and a dead baby, to name a few. At times, the actors stack caps in heaps atop their heads and require dexterous quick changes. So simple, so effective.

For the Broadway run, Gutenberg! lays on smoke and fog effects, a confetti burst, disco lighting, and more tricks. They emerge as extra, but not altogether necessary. The best effects are the two nimble actors.

In the end, Gutenberg! presses beyond pure goofiness to deliver a sweet message about going for one’s dreams. Another idea emerges, too. Between the visible musicians, the brick wall, and the prominent door, the show’s set bears a bit of a resemblance to Saturday Night Live. There, like on Broadway, the best sketches leave you wanting more.

Gutenberg! The Musical! Is at the James Earl Jones Theatre through January 28. Get Gutenberg! The Musical! tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells in Gutenberg! The Musical! (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

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