A pilot sits in his makeshift "plane" — a repurposed wheelbarrow papered with a sparkly, hand-drawn military insignia. It's the opening scene of Top Gun! The Musical at Empire Stage in Fort Lauderdale, and the barrow-plane is being rolled clunkily across the small stage by a standing copilot. Meanwhile, the pilot is forced to clutch one of the plane's detachable wings the entire time, holding it to the side of the wheelbarrow so it doesn't fall off; that trick isn't supposed to happen until act two.
Top Gun! The Musical is a show-within-a-show comedy that premiered at a fringe festival in 2002 to great success. It's about the making of a disastrous musical adaptation of the cornball 1986 film, crash-landing from the beginning thanks to backstage rivalries, an overambitious director, a vain cast, and an ex-Navy SEAL producer aiming to use the musical as a propaganda tool.
The problem is, in this case it's impossible to tell the sloppiness of the show from the sloppiness of the show. We know the musical within the musical is supposed to suck, but it takes a talented group to suck artfully. I'm inclined to believe that the airplane wing was not supposed to be broken in the awkward opening number, just like the American flag draped over the wall wasn't supposed to fall to the floor in a clump at intermission. The show has no set design, and even the few props are mismanaged.
The cast's enthusiasm for the project is apparent, but most of the actors simply don't have the goods. The dialogue between Todd Storey, as the exacting director, and Christie Oliver, as his production assistant, is stilted and artificial. The banter needs to snap, crackle, pop, and overlap; instead, the actors' sentences trail off as they wait for their partners to interrupt them, always one beat behind where they should be. At other times, the cast can't help but burst into laughter at its own material — something that may be mercifully absent by the later shows in the run.
It gets worse. Listening to some of the players sing, it's a wonder they would ever be cast in a musical. They don't have the vocal range to sustain the requirements of the songs, and even the choreography — the most rudimentary steps I've seen in any musical anywhere — is performed ineptly. I will show some tact and not single out any names here, though it's worth mentioning that FAU student Lindsey Johr, as a gender-bending Goose, is a compelling presence who sings and acts circles around her colleagues. Her operatic, banshee pipes are one of the production's few highlights.
A couple of caveats: First, two of the actors I saw in the opening weekend production will be replaced in the following weeks, which may lead to some improvement. Second, the producing company, a new-to-Florida group called Anagram Entertainment, aims to foster new talent by casting inexperienced nonprofessionals in some roles, taking its chances on the results. If Anagram ever wants to be taken seriously in this outstanding theater community, then Top Gun! The Musical is an obvious argument against this approach.
The source material sounds like it should have been really funny. It follows the Trey Parker model of crude humor, social commentary, and classical show-tune craftsmanship. "Public Domain Medley" is a witty reincorporation of old standards, selected because the musical's makers couldn't afford the rights to Top Gun's signature songs. "Just Put the Asses in the Seats" is a clever examination of the profit-above-all ethos of certain show producers. And "You Can Ride My Tail" is the inevitable number about the source material's homosexual subtext. (A Google search for Top Gun and gay yields more than 6 million results, twice as many as Top Gun and Tom Cruise.)
But I was too uncomfortable to enjoy the songs and the multitude of inside-theater references, because the presentation was too painful. When the character of Charlie (Kelly Kopf) complains to the director, "This is weak, Billy — it's amateur hour," I think she speaks for all of us.