Review: An Untitled New Play By Justin Timberlake at City Theatre

There’s no doubt that a great deal of talent, heart and commitment is on display, both on stage and behind the scenes, of City Theatre and Pittsburgh CLO’s co-production of the world-premiere musical, An Untitled New Play By Justin Timberlake, with book, music, and lyrics by Matt Schatz, now playing at City Theatre.

Reviewed by Laura Caton

The program details the timeline of the shows journey to the stage. It begins with a first draft in early 2016, was derailed in 2020 for obvious reasons, and is now coming to a happy conclusion on the South Side.

While I’m still not quite sure what the show’s main takeaway is meant to be. It’s an undeniably joyful and entertaining evening, covering a wide range of emotions and musical stylings in a jam-packed ninety minutes.

Idealistic dramaturg Beth (Julianne Avolio) works at a nonprofit theater in New York City. She wants above all to produce good work that reflects the diversity of the city around her. At the top of the show, Beth has found a work of genius written by a mostly-unknown playwright, El Yamasaki Brooks (Lara Hayhurst). She decides she must get it produced.

The problem? Beth’s boss, the always-hyphenated Todd-Michael Smyth (Craig MacDonald), is less focused on changing the world and more focused on running a business (when he isn’t trying to burnish his own reputation). Still, Beth convinces him to take a chance on El’s play. After smoothing long-ruffled feathers between her and her chosen director, Liz Cohen (Melessie Clark), she even manages to bring her on board.

But Beth can’t catch a break: while on a business trip to LA, Todd-Michael has a chance run-in with Justin Timberlake, who happens to be a budding playwright himself. When Justin’s play is chosen for production instead of El’s, Beth is forced to navigate the waters of art, money, celebrity, love, and career. Making for a breathless trip, ending in an over-the-top denouement.

I certainly enjoyed the ride, but there were some bumps along the way. The show is energetic, sarcastic, and often hilarious. Still, ultimately, I couldn’t tell if I was supposed to be laughing at or with the characters. Above all, I think the story runs into difficulties related to its breakneck pacing. It touches on many high-stakes topics in an hour and a half, which unfortunately means it doesn’t have time to explore them in-depth. The book often raises complicated questions about the intersections of art, identity, capitalism, and representation only to pivot the discussion to toe-tapping songs that don’t always speak to those questions or further the conversation about them. Untitled launches quickly out of the gate but never entirely plays in the pocket. I wanted more time with the characters and plotlines to process the ideas that were being presented and understand how they all came together.

In the hands of the creative team and performers, though, I was willing to go wherever the show took me, even if I didn’t always understand why.

The set (by Britton Mauk), costumes (Dominique Fawn Hill), sound design (Zachary Beattie-Brown), and lighting (Andrew David Ostrowski) come together to create an immersive candy-colored world that perfectly reflects the irreverence of the writing.

Reginald L. Douglas‘s direction brings a visual vocabulary to the story that helps guide it through its varied scenes and songs. Above all, the cast is tremendous, delivering earnestness and snark in the same breath and swinging for the fences with each musical number. Julianne Avolio, in particular, carries a considerable weight on her shoulders as Beth (who appears in nearly every scene) and is more than up to the task. She has a beautiful voice and an approachability that makes it easy to root for her. On top of all that, she has a fantastic sense of comedic timing, delivering one-liners with aplomb and pulling faces that would make Lucille Ball proud.

This co-production between City Theatre and Pittsburgh CLO is an exciting reminder of the scope and vision of the Pittsburgh arts community. The quirky show they’ve brought to life is worth a visit this holiday season— regardless of how you feel about Justin Timberlake.

For more information and tickets visit: https://citytheatrecompany.org/play/an-untitled-new-play-by-justin-timberlake/

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