THEATER | Brave New Workshop’s “Toyota! The Runaway Musical Hit!” is funny and timely

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It’s a good thing I didn’t bring my friends Michele Bachmann or Susan Boyle to the Brave New Workshop’s latest production, Toyota! The Runaway Musical Hit! They may not have appreciated the humor in this timely and hilarious take on current events nearly as much as the small but enthusiastic audience did on Friday night.

With recurring appearances among these 18 brief musical sketches, politician Bachmann and singer Boyle are offered up as comedic fodder in typical BNW fashion, with Bachmann played by wide-eyed Ellie Hino and Boyle portrayed by a surprisingly look-alike Bobby Gardner. Hino’s characterization includes wildly expressive physical tics that may bear only a slight relationship to the actual Bachmann, but that create an evocative caricature. The title comes from a few scenes in which characters are riding in Toyotas that suddenly experience uncontrolled acceleration, thereby provoking conversations while they dodge collisions and wait out the ride. The funniest bit here includes Lauren Anderson as a 12-year-old girl sharing with her dad (Josh Eakright) while they wait for their Prius to stop. Tuning in to a to a Miley Cyrus/Justin Bieber duet on the radio, as performed by McEwan and Gardner, father and daughter hear completely different messages, one about butterflies, the other about graphic sex. Another scene has syrupy new lovers Hino and Gardner falling out of love within minutes as the uncertainty of the runaway car tears them apart, leading to Ellie’s outrageous song, “I Wish I Had Herpes.”

Compared to some other BNW productions, this one is light on the political humor, with the Michele Bachmann portrayal and a sketch on health care reform, performed as a silent movie with video monitors providing the text, being the main sketches with a political bent. It is ripe, as always, with contemporary culture references.

toyota! the runaway musical hit!, presented through august 14 at the brave new workshop. for tickets and information, see bravenewworkshop.com

Highlights of the show include “The Douchebag Song,” which features the latest name-calling phenomenon—though I have been calling people “douchebag” (in my head only, of course) for about 30 years. “Sandwich Songs” (the top five songs you don’t know the words to) went by quickly and I wished we could have seen at least five more. I also enjoyed Anderson’s and Gardner’s personal stories and wondered why the other three cast members didn’t have corresponding moments. None of the sketches fails to deliver at least a few laughs, however. Unlike watching an episode of Saturday Night Live, there are few breaks between the funny bits. If there is a bit that drags for you, don’t worry, because the show moves rapidly and will offer up the next sketch to take another shot at your amusement.

The musical aspect of the show means that each of the five the actors sing throughout. Director/actor McEwan proves to be the most skilled vocalist; in fact, I wonder if she had to at some point make a decision whether to pursue comedy or music as a career. She’s that good at both. The others are adequate in their singing and make up for any minor shortcomings with their well-timed comedy.

My only beef with Toyota! The Runaway Musical Hit! is that it feels all too brief, which may be the very definition of a successful production. The cast offer about ten minutes of improvisation following the two acts, but they apparently believe in the “leave them wanting more” approach to show business—while I wanted to laugh all night.