When you see a scrap of paper on the sidewalk, what do you do? Probably nothing, unless you’re cleaning the sidewalk. Then you sweep it into the garbage. That’s not what Davy Rothbart did, as seen in the altogether charming Philadelphia Theatre Company production of a new musical called “Found,” based on Rothbart and actual events.
Rothbart picked up scraps of musings and doodles and random notes and so did his friends. After a while a lot of people were picking up bits of paper that others had written on and left at restaurant tables, in library carrels or wherever. They sent him these discards from everyday lives. And so Rothbart’s magazine was born, called “Found.”
Mario, said the first note he ever retrieved, fastened mistakenly under a windshield wiper of his car. I f— hate you. You said you had to work – then why’s your car here at her place? You’re a f— liar. I hate you… –Amber. PS: Page me later.
It’s one of a sheathful of notes that playwrights Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree put into their smart and off-beat show about Rothbart, his friends, and the idea to collect this stuff into a magazine. If that seems like a thin concept for a show, consider many musicals that have the same general narrative as “Found.” (For a current example, “Kinky Boots.”) The story arc goes like this: Someone flounders, then seizes an idea, tries to make it work, falls in love along the way, friends and colleagues begin to fight, everything comes apart, changes of heart save the day.
None of this, of course, works without the embellishment of music and in this case, all those random found notes. Eli Bolin put the scribbles to song and added songs of his own. Connor Gallagher came up with funky choreography that the shimmering performers in “Found” pull off, frequently barging in on the plot to recite notes that become off-handed commentary about the plot itself. All the notes are said to be real, even the one that reads “Be right back. Godot.”
I’m tempted to call “Found” a world premiere, because the Philadelphia Theatre Company production is the result of a major overhaul by the creative team after its Off-Broadway opening two years ago. The team has reworked the show so vigorously that large parts of a song list printed in the program, which went to press about three weeks ago, have nothing to do with what I saw at Wednesday’s opening. The current song list is a single-page insert.
Initially, I found the idea odd that people come across so many of these throwaway thoughts and miscued memos. Just as I was beginning to suspect the entire premise, I remembered finding one at a doctor’s office the day before. Without defining anything, the note simply said that a new policy causes delays. (Sounds like Bridgegate.)
With a flair for surprise and an eye for oddity, co-author Overtree directs “Found,” which in its funniest moments offers possible back-stories for some of the found notes. The show never comes out of high gear in its 100 intermissionless minutes; even its old-hat love story hints at urgency under Overtree’s direction. After Rothbart (an endearing F. Michael Haynie) finds the first scribbled note, he shows it as a curiosity to his roommates (Juwan Crawley, whose high-register vocals are like a call to arms, and the commanding Alysha Deslorieux). They laugh over it but then begin to find more, just as odd and out of context. They read them at shows in bars and put together a booklet. A magazine is born. A Hollywood offer comes in the form of a new girlfriend (Erika Henningsen) who is a TV producer. Egos rise and fall when TV rights are sold and … well, like I said.
The unseen star of the show is Darrel Maloney, the designer who took the found notes – many of them, the originals – and arranged them for video and projection design. They adorn the three stage walls designed by David Korins as enormous note-boards and they come and go as six cast members in incidental parts turn the notes’ contents into lyrics or offer droll recitations.
Although ’tis the season, I wouldn’t call “Found” a holiday show. But it’s a welcome holiday from the political intensity that’s spawned the awful notes, graffiti, epithets and more reported over the past weeks. And the smooth show and production suggest that its creators have further aspirations for “Found.” The found notes in the show may be random. But taken together, they strike a chord that attracts both artistic directors and audiences, and is particularly well-served by live performance: They address being human and wanting to express it.
At least they do to me. Or maybe I read a note about it.
—“Found,” presented by Philadelphia Theatre Company, runs through Dec. 11 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets. 215-985-0420 or philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.