Nobody Loves You

Shortly before seeing Nobody Loves You, I was watching a reality program. (The Next Food Network Star, to be exact. I was Team Viet.) I had no idea what Nobody Love You would be about; I could barely keep in mind that I was going to see it. (It’s been a busy summer, so far.) But as I watched the Food Network hopefuls give their direct address testimonials, I thought, “Could you do reality TV on stage?” Apparently you can.

This new, original musical from Itamar Moses (book and lyrics) and Gaby Alter (music and lyrics), conceives a reality dating show, "Nobody Loves You," and for 90 minutes explores whether or not one character’s assertion is true: “You can perform or you can connect; you can’t do both.”

At rise, we meet Jeff (Bryan Fenkart), an academic who loathes reality TV. He is an ontology student trying to complete his thesis while his girlfriend tunes into the season finale of "Nobody Loves You." In short order, she deems them incompatible, breaks up with him and declares she intends to audition to be a contestant on the reality show. To prove a point and to win her back, Jeff decides to audition, too. Lo and behold, Jeff is accepted as a contestant and his ex is not. He rationalizes that he should stay on the show in order to research his thesis, trying to prove that reality TV is thoroughly unrealistic, that you can’t connect while performing.

It’s fairly deep territory for such a shallow medium (reality TV, that is, not theatre). Luckily, we have able writers laying the groundwork and a director, Michelle Tattenbaum, who harkened back to traditional musical theatre tropes and techniques when visioning the show.

Nobody Loves You, the musical at Second Stage, has its wonderfully cheese-tastic moments, but they work because those moments of performance are seen in the show-within-the-show. The moments of connection, played out by a terrific company (albeit one that lacks diversity, noteworthy since reality shows usually go out of their way to look like a Benetton ad), are sincere and heartfelt, without dallying into treacle or melodrama. The writers were clearly going for such a division.

During a post-show discussion with the writers and director, Alter confirmed he consciously used different music styles for different characters and settings in the show. For example, "Nobody Loves You" is hosted by pretty boy Byron (played with slick charm by Heath Calvert). Everything this automaton sings is 90s slow jam pastiche. While I dig some 90s slow jams, the genre is used here to signify style and no substance. Contrast that with the more folk-tinged numbers sung by Jeff and his love interest, producer Jenny (Aleque Reid), which are meant to express actual and true emotion.    

What was most fascinating to me was the similarity to the classic Robert Redford political film, The Candidate. I don’t know if Alter and Moses (Completeness) intended to suggest this connection, but I couldn’t help but see Jeff as Bill McKay-esque. If you remember, Redford is McKay, the titular candidate. At first, he is reluctant to run, eschewing politics and campaigning as a joke and a circus, at best. The idealist is convinced, eventually, to run and gets off to a good start, saying what he actually believes and not becoming part of a spin machine. But soon, he is consumed by the business of political management and finds himself a cartoon of the very thing he claimed to despise.

Similarly, Jeff has noble intentions when he agrees to stay on "Nobody Loves You." Like McKay before him, he quickly is consumed by the fame monster and ends up performing more than connecting. With the ubiquity of reality TV shows and their inevitable “stars,” this is something we can all relate to (with chagrin, perhaps), and so like some of the best musicals, Nobody Loves You says something about our society.

Nobody Loves You comes to Second Stage after a production at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre and a festival presentation. When I saw it, early in previews, there were still some lighting and sound cues to be worked out. Those easily fixable challenges notwithstanding, I could see Nobody Loves You having either a brief run on Broadway, or a celebrated and storied run off-Broadway and regionally. (Not that it’s my job to figure that out, of course…)

Visit Second Stage to learn more about the show and to purchase tickets.

Nobody Loves You plays through August 11 and stars Health Calvert (Bloody Bloody AndrewJackson; Hair), Bryan Fenkart (Memphis), Roe Hartrampf, Autumn Hurlbert, Leslie Kritzer (The Memory Show), Lauren Molina, Rory O’Malley (The Book of Mormon) and Aleque Reid.

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