By Stanford Friedman
How many Josh Cohens does it take to screwball a musical? In this cheery revival of The Other Josh Cohen, a work that originated in 2010 at the New York Musical Festival, I count at least four. There is year-ago Josh (Steve Rosen), a chubby schlemiel with an unfortunate moustache. There is present-day Josh (David Rossmer), an in-shape winner with a clean upper lip. There is mistaken-identity Josh, a disembodied plot device who we hear over the phone. And finally, there is the enlightened Josh, who prevails over the unfair twists of life in New York City to become his best self. Despite a slight proclivity for weird porn, these Joshes score an “I’m a mensch!” factor of 10 and the finale is so sweet it will hurt your teeth. But, this journey toward love and self-esteem is told with wit and charm, and is performed by a cast oozing with charisma. Like the pints of ice cream that year-ago Josh gobbles down, this confection, er, I mean production, proves impossible to resist.
The show not only explores the limits of otherness, it literally runs on it. The lead actors are also the authors and the five supporting actors are also the band. There is only one director, Hunter Foster, though he is otherwise known as a writer and a Tony-nominated actor. He is also Sutton Foster’s older brother, a bond which perhaps helped inform his task of staging an adult’s relationship with his younger self. The two primary Joshes in this tale exist apart in time, yet share the stage together. Year-ago Josh has had nearly everything stolen from his apartment. Meanwhile, his attempts at finding a girlfriend are foiled by a variety of flaws, many of which stem from an overt passion for junk food. Present-day Josh narrates the action, and at times interacts with his counterpart, employing a sense of humor that is winningly self deprecating. Across 90 minutes and 11 musical numbers, the fates giveth and taketh away, most notably when a large check unexpectedly arrives in the mail. Turns out that the envelope was meant for a different Josh Cohen, but the brush with financial security sets the gears turning that will ultimately result in Josh finding the girl, the home furnishings and the razor that he desperately needs. We do not so much witness one Josh slowly becoming the other. Rather, it happens Bar Mitzvah-like; he suddenly becomes a man.
Rosen & Rossmer have filled the script with allusions to, and obsessions with, Neil Diamond and also the Gene Wilder version of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. An analysis of what this means in terms of Judaism, success and male identity would be called for were this a deeper musical, but here it plays out with a layer of schmaltz that help the laughs go down easy. In the song, “Neil Life,” they advise, “Try his point of view/You’ll feel sexy too!” Rossmer, often strumming a six-string while cracking wise, has fine chemistry with the endearing Rosen. If not physically identical, their timing and comfort with each other make them a believable two parts of a whole. The multi-talented supporting ensemble is led by the very funny Kate Wetherhead, portraying various mean girlfriends and kind hearted Jewish mothers. Louis Tucci, when not busy on bass guitar, is both Josh’s landlord and his father. He also recites a hilarious outgoing answering machine message. Luke Darnell, Hannah Elless and Elizabeth Nestlerode all turn in fine performances in sporadic appearances as other various friends, lovers and relatives. Most of Carolyn Mraz’s scenic design disappears before the opening scene, as we watch a burglar empty out the space while the audience is being seated. The skyline view from the set’s window though does not suggest that it is a first floor apartment, as Josh tells us it is. The creative team apparently failed to realize that what is clearly called for here is a split-level.
The Other Josh Cohen – By David Rossmer & Steve Rosen; Directed by Hunter Foster.
WITH: Steve Rosen (Josh Cohen), David Rossmer (Narrator Josh), Luke Darnell, Hannah Elless, Elizabeth Nestlerode, Louis Tucci and Kate Wetherhead.
Scenic Design, Carolyn Mraz; Costume Design, Nicole V. Moody; Lighting Design, Jeff Croiter; Sound Design, Bart Fasbender; Orchestrations, Dan Lipton & David Rossmer; Hair & Wig Design, J. Jared Janas; Music Supervisor, Dan Lipton; Production Stage Manager, Rebecca McBee; Production Manager, Mary Duffe. Produced by Suzanne Gilad and Larry Rogowsky at the Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd St., 212-239-6200, http://otherjoshcohen.com. Through February 24. Running time: 90 minutes