The musical “Nerds” is like a new digital game that grabs your attention and won’t let go. Forget about everything else, it will wait. You’re hooked.
“Nerds” is a historical fantasy (if that can be a genre) on how the world became almost entirely dependent on technology, and its high-spirited revival at Philadelphia Theatre Company will bring out new audiences as well as the people already hooked six years ago. That’s when the company first staged this hoot about the ways two nerds who knew each other as kids — Bill Gates and Steve Jobs — spearheaded the development of computers and in short order, changed the basic way the world spins. That world itself has changed a lot since the show’s 2007 premiere – the iPad, for example, would not be introduced for three more years.
Something else happened, too: The world learned that the visionary Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, was ill with pancreatic cancer, and he died in 2011. When the Philadelphia Theatre Company had a hit on its hands, Jobs’ health was no issue, and “Nerds” was on its way to Broadway – for about two years, it was listed as an upcoming production in Broadway’s bible, the Theatrical Index. Production lagged, though, and after Jobs’ illness became public, no one with any sense would attempt a New York version of a wacky show that hilariously dives into the sea change that Jobs and Gates engineered and then turned into a tidal wave.
Now that Jobs is fully ensconced as a legend and no longer suffers in real life, we can take a newer look. The new “Nerds” — like so many shows that are updated and refined – trades a little of its rough-edged charm for a lot more polished playwrighting. But the swap here is a plus, especially in the second act, when a down-and-out Jobs is being menaced by a market-snorting Gates, the guru of Microsoft. In fact, the show had lacked a strong denouement, and now finishes with a flair that the rest of it demands. (And even after the ending, there’s an ending, but I’m not going to tell you about that.)
The musical delightfully makes fun of itself as well, the whole way through – something you might expect from Jordan Allen-Dutton and Erik Weiner, who’ve written for the Cartoon Network and together created “The Bomb-itty of Errors,” very popular here twice at 11th Hour Theatre Company. Their script and clever lyrics, plus the show’s catchy and easily singable music by Hal Goldberg, combine to make “Nerds” much like a frantic cartoon. Seizing on this, director Casey Hushion and choreographer Joshua Bergasse move the show’s 11 actors – two more than in the first version – around the stage as if they are ink-drawn and computer-animated, all too bizarre to be real.
Yet much of the history in “Nerds” is real, beginning with the Homebrew Computer Club in Palo Alto in the ‘70s. There, college-age nerds immersed themselves in electronic gadgetry. The young Bill Gates (a wonderfully geeky Stanley Bahorek) and his buddy Paul Allen (the versatile Rob Morrison) competed to be smarter than Steve Jobs (Matt Bradley in a funny rock-star persona) and his pal, Steve Wozniak (Benny Elledge, spot-on).
Gates is portrayed as a brilliant outcast: “At a dance I got pantsed by some jocks,” he laments in an endearing song called “I Am Just a Nerd.” Jobs is a rock-star who spends his days in a ganja haze and is equally clueless about social convention; he becomes everything that makes you snicker at American marketing. Now, as before, the wackier the show gets, the cleverer it becomes. And the dumber it becomes, the smarter it is, because it finds a way to be subtly serious about success and ambition as the plot moves forward.
In the second act of their careers – and the second act of “Nerds” – the two men set about outscheming each other and stealing intellectual property wherever they can find an intellect. The deliciously shameless “Nerds” is replete with sophomoric puns in apt context, and extreme characterizations. Jobs, fallen from grace until he develops his now-omnipresent iLine of stuff, is a homeless hobo. Gates sits on a literal throne as he hones the greedy corporate machinations that will land his company in court. As for the love interests “Nerds” creates, (Briana Carlson-Goodman and Lexy Fridell, each with star turns in the show), they’ve grown tired of the boys’ outrageous aggressiveness. “Your tripped-out eyes, they used to shine,” sings Jobs’ paramour, “now all I see is dollar signs.
The supporting cast goes at the plot with a real-life hard drive that out-performs the one you find in your computer. And none of this could come off as attractively without the very computer chips the show mocks. The set and projection design, by Lee Savage and Daniel Brodie, respectively, cover the rear of the stage with a massive circuit board and LED screens – it’s a high-tech burst of lights and images.
There is a minor glitch – doesn’t every digitally-connected enterprise have at least one? — and on opening night it was the sound balance, which sometimes allowed the otherwise excellent seven-piece orchestra to overpower the singers. This was particularly so for the Steve Jobs performed by Bradley, who doesn’t project easily when he sings in a lower register, and Nevin Steinberg’s generally polished sound design didn’t compensate. You may notice that the singing by the two leads can go slightly off-key but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt; these songs are delivered by off-key nerds, after all.
P.S.: As soon as I left the theater and got into a cab, the underlying theme of “Nerds” – that these two men have forever changed the world – became clear. I asked the cab driver how his night was going, and he said he looked forward to getting home. He was eager to play with the new laptop he’d just bought. Let’s hear it for the nerds.
“Nerds,” produced by Philadelphia Theatre Company, runs though Dec. 29 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets. 215-985-0420 or www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.