By Jeff Dunn
Game shows are the American Dream. “It could be me on that stage; Imagine winning all that money!” you might think. Well imagine attending San Jose Playhouse’s revival of their Thanks for Playing! The Game Show Show—you might think, “I love musicals! This one might be fun!” Not only might it be fun–in this one, you too might be contestant! And win an ironic box of Ramen.
The show is the brainchild of Scott Evan Guggenheim, with book and lyrics by his wife Shannon Guggenheim, and music by Shannon, her brother-in-law Stephen Guggenheim and Thomas Tomasello. It is billed as the “final revision” of the musical that premiered in 2010 and was reexamined by its creators in 2012 and 2020. I did not see the first version, although a few excerpts on YouTube indicate that while some songs have been dropped/replaced, the sets and props remain fairly much the same.
…Historical Note: 390 backers pledged $51,648 on Kickstarter to help bring this project to life, back in 2012-14…
And the best part of the show does seem to be the same: the high energy and accurate singing of its eight on-stage performers, the feeling they project of having a jolly good time together and wanting to carry the audience happily along with them in a slurry of upbeat tempos. And Julie Engelbrecht’s sets intensify the atmosphere with its palette of colors borrowed the from late 60’s show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, not to mention her inventive costumes, one collection of which turned the cast into a giant slot machine.
The more problematic part of the show is the first act. Shannon herself plays Frankie Marks, a Game-show-history buff. We are told she’s attending the 70th anniversary of the first TV game show at Studio 84 in NYC (this would be in 2008). Very quickly, she is given the offer to play a mysterious “game” by an unseen godlike Announcer. She accepts, and is magically sent back into the beginning of a game show called “Secret Square” starting in the early 1950s.
As the show evolves, the Announcer periodically offers options to change history or even revise game-show personalities. I don’t know if this Meta-Announcer business is new to this revised version, but this reviewer found it confusing at first, and didn’t feel that changing history or personalities added much to the humor. (Suggestion to the Playwright: a straight-line “How to Succeed…” plot starting in the 1950s might be easier to grasp. Just sayin’.)
By the second act, after the show runs into trouble with revelations of cued contestants a la the $64,000 Question, the story becomes easier to follow and more enjoyable.
A love interest emerges between Frankie and Secret Square’s producer Bill Todson (Stephen Guggenheim), making me wish a bit more had been done in Act One to generate empathy with the protagonists. Such empathy might have required a ballad which might have the salutary effect of adding additional variety to the musical style. (As it was, only the last song, “Thanks For Playing,” really stuck in my memory.)
Hopefully, future attendees will not experience the sound issues that had the prerecorded orchestral track outbalance the singers, and younger gamer-attendees, used to computer role-playing scenarios, will have less trouble Meta-time-traveling.
Jeff Dunn is ASR’s Classical Music Section Editor. A retired educator and project manager, he’s been writing music and theater reviews for Bay Area and national journals since 1995. He is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the National Association of Composers, USA.
His musical Castle Happy (co-author John Freed), about Marion Davies and W.R. Hearst, received a festival production at the Altarena Theater in 2017. His opera Finding Medusa, with librettist Madeline Puccioni, was completed in January 2023. Jeff has won prizes for his photography, and is also a judge for the Northern California Council of Camera Clubs.
|Production||Thanks For Playing: The Game Show Show|
|Stage Direction by||Scott Evan Guggenheim|
|Producing Company||Guggenheim Entertainment, Inc.|
|Production Dates||Thru Aug 20th|
|Production Address||3Below Theaters, 288 S Second St, San Jose, CA 95113|
|Reviewer Score||Max in each category is 5/5|
|Aisle Seat Review PICK?||----|