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Atlantic Theater Company‘s world premiere production of WHAT’S THAT SMELL: THE MUSIC OF JACOB STERLING, conceived, performed and co-directed by two-time Tony Award® nominee David Pittu, co-directed with Atlantic Artistic Director Neil Pepe, and featuring music by Randy Redd, plays a limited engagement through Sunday, September 28th at Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16th Street).


THE NEW YORK TIMES – September 11, 2008





CLICK “MULTIMEDIA” TO VIEW PHOTO/AUDIO SLIDESHOW with creator David Pittu and listen to title song.




By Charles Isherwood


A season of new musicals looms before us, rich in promise and – let’s admit it – perhaps just a little menace. Soon men and women will be swanning across stages on Broadway and off, bursting into new song as emotion overflows their hearts. There will be good news and bad, songfests to celebrate and to regret, unexpected triumphs and bitter disappointments.


But I’m pretty sure the jackals who cherish a big Broadway bomb will find nothing to match the rapturously awful songs of the composer-lyricist who serenades us with throbbing intensity in the ingenious new show “What’s That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling,” which opened Wednesday night at the Atlantic Stage 2 theater. As Jacob launches earnestly into the signature aria from his unproduced musical adaptation of the Goldie Hawn movie “Private Benjamin,” it becomes blazingly clear that we are witnessing a master at work.


A master of the maladroit lyric, the ludicrous image and all-encompassing bad taste, that is. By rapturously awful songs I should make it clear that I really mean indescribably wonderful songs. For connoisseurs of atrocious musical theater – and/or whip-smart satire – the fictional Jacob Sterling is a godsend to be eternally grateful for.


He is the brainchild of David Pittu, one of the city’s most talented character actors and a Tony nominee this year for his dexterous turn in several different roles in the Mark Twain comedy “Is He Dead?”


Mr. Pittu portrays Jacob, a luckless but unbowed Broadway baby, with flawless panache. But he also wrote the book and lyrics for this affectionate, subversive comedy about the cocoon of self-absorption that many a chronically aspiring artist of limited gifts calls home. (Mr. Pittu also shares the directing chores with Neil Pepe, the Atlantic Theater artistic director.) A man with a thimbleful of talent to accompany his measureless self-belief, Jacob seeks to convince the audience at a cheapo cable television show to share his conviction that were it not for a few bad breaks, Jacob Sterling would today be a musical-theater luminary second only to Stephen Sondheim. And might be yet, if fortune favors him at last and his latest project makes it to the promised land of a Broadway opening night.


He is the guest of Leonard Swagg, played with a comic precision to match Mr. Pittu’s own by Peter Bartlett, possibly best known as Mr. Charles of Palm Beach, the flamboyant gay cable host from the short play of the same name by Paul Rudnick (seen at Lincoln Center Theater earlier in the year as part of the Rudnick omnibus “The New Century”).


A close spiritual cousin of Mr. Charles, the fawning Leonard presides over a show called “Composers and Lyricists of Tomorrow” – CLOT for short (the first in a series of grotesquely funny acronyms). He is a one-man fan club and support group for the brave souls battling to keep the ever-beleaguered musical theater alive, clueless to the idea that some of their ministrations – Jacob’s for example – might prove more fatal than restorative.


“I feel very welcome here, and very supported and safe,” Jacob says as he snuggles into a white vinyl chair as if it were a throne equivalent to Oprah’s couch. “And that’s a wonderful feeling for a living American musical theater composer working in an age of terror.”


That savory note – complacent self-importance mixed with schmaltzy sincerity – is Jacob’s signature, and Mr. Pittu delivers it with infinite nuance but nary a wink, as Leonard coaxes Jacob through the highlights of his career. Selections from the Sterling songbook are interspersed with anecdotes from Jacob’s checkered history.


The sound bites have clearly been rehearsed before the mirror for eons, so perfectly timed are the humble smiles and pauses for applause as Jacob recalls life-changing encounters with theater legends like Barbara Eden (she urged him to change his name from Jacob Silverstein when they worked together on a “benefit for chronic yeast syndrome”) and Loni Anderson (she dropped Jacob when rights issues precluded her making her Broadway debut in “Private Benjamin”).


Mr. Pittu is possibly even more hilarious when Jacob sits down at a glossy white baby grand to perform his songs, his voice caressing each clunky phrase and bald cliché with the tenderness of a mother stroking a newborn’s pink belly. The chest heaves with barely suppressed emotion.


Click to Read the rest of the review:



WHAT’S THAT SMELL: THE MUSIC OF JACOB STERLING plays Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00pm, Saturday matinees at 2:00pm and Sundays at 3:00pm. All tickets are $35.00 and available by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 (www.ticketcentral.com).


ATLANTIC STAGE 2 is located at 330 West 16th Street (between 8th & 9th Avenues).  For membership information, wheelchair seating, and/or group sales call Ticketcentral at 212-279-4200 or visit www.ticketcentral.com.




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