REVIEW WRITTEN BY ANDERS BACK
For Digital First Media
From cave art to keyboards, people have been sending notes to each other for over 40,000 years. It’s a circuitous path that leads from the Sulawesi cave drawings in Indonesia to papyrus, then paper and then Art Fry’s legendary Post-It notes. Eventually we reached the heat lamped buffet of words known as Facebook and Twitter. We scatter words at every turn of the path — reflecting our compulsive need to record and share every random, wayward thought.
One night in 1999 Davy Rothbart found one of these thoughts scrawled on a piece of paper stuck to his car in Chicago and came up with an idea as original as any online ‘zine.
“Mario, I **** hate you,” the note read. “You said you had to work then whys your car HERE at HER place? You’re a ****liar. I hate you I **** hate you Amber.” Of course, Amber had put her note on the wrong car but it was her last line that grabbed Davy’s attention: “ps page me later.”
Rothbart started thinking about Amber and Mario and realized that everywhere are passionate, obscure, awkward, anxious and insolent scrawls that could be collected, read, mused over and celebrated as readily as any poem or song. Rothbart shared this spontaneous prose with his slacker friends and they started collecting scribbled messages, letters, photos, lists and napkin notes they found in their daily routines. “I just treasured these little slices of other people’s lives, and held on to them,” Rothbart said. After years of part time jobs, always wanting “to do something that I love, and do it with people that I love,” he had arrived.
He started by printing at Kinko’s a cut and paste magazine called Found featuring these brief expressions of shared humanity. Readers loved it and began submitting their own finds. He went on the road and did Found events. Found first became a book in 2004 and “inevitiventually” (if one may create a Found word) TV pilots, podcasts and an off-Broadway musical at Atlantic Theater Company. A revamped version of that show with new musical numbers and new found notes is currently on stage at the Philadelphia Theater Company. It’s a fast-paced, fun and delightfully diverting 100 minutes of upbeat song celebrating the unsung, loony, lost and lonely, arriving not a moment too soon.
Featuring music and lyrics by Eli Bolin and book by Hunter Bell and director Lee Overtree, these three veterans of national, regional and children’s theater have assembled an energetic cast partly from the original New York production with some multitalented newcomers. They use a cabaret approach somewhat reminiscent of Tomfoolery, Cameron Mackintosh’s 80’s musical showcase of provocative prose based on Tom Lehrer’s music and lyrics. The plot is exceedingly thin and formulaic but designed to keep the notes and letters in the spotlight and that’s fine; they are what Rothbart’s ‘zine, books, podcasts and tours were all about. After hours of interviews with the musical’s producers about the birth of “Found” Rothbart told the writers to “take the story wherever you want it to go.” Is the story line truthful? As Rothbart puts it, “half of it is exactly what happened, and the other half might very well have happened.”
Davy’s arc from fledgling publisher to minor media celebrity is chronicled in a series of mostly smart, slick production numbers that take several of the best notes (all authentic) and carry them musically to their (mostly) illogical conclusions such as the numbers “Meld Together” about a time travelling self proclaimed MIT student announcing the precise time of his arrival from the future and “Johnny Tremain” that hilariously tries to imagine what happened during a theatrical production featuring student behavior so heinous the principal banished most of the class from future field trips.
F. Michael Haynie as Davy provides the right mix of youthful idealism and naivety the role requires with plenty of zip and a reliable voice in the musical numbers. “Hamilton” veteran Alysha Deslorieux adds a strong female presence and powerhouse voice to the founding of Found as Davy’s friend and original love interest Denise and Juwan Crawley nicely counterbalances her as Davy’s loyal, funny but no-nonsense lifelong friend Mikey D. Erika Henningsen is poised, compellingly honest and makes sympathetic the unenviable role of Becka, the note-writing and winsome siren who leads Davy to his downfall in Hollywood.
From the original New York cast are Christina Anthony who hijacks the show as the teacher in “Johnny Tremain” and as a Motown singer. Other singing and acting standouts from that cast fitting snugly into the production are Andrew Call, Orville Mendoza, Molly Pope and Sandy Rustin.
Scenic Designer David Korins is known for his sets for “Hamilton,” “Misery” and “Motown.” His set is a simple tapered riser that fits neatly in the rather intimate space of the Roberts Theater with built-in pits for each musician and covered with copies of the real “Found” notes. Managing the same close proximity for the cast’s dancing, choreographer Connor Gallagher is an invisible traffic cop who somehow keeps them from colliding while doing numbers that could fill a much larger space.