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Review: 'NOW.HERE.THIS' is peppy and optimistic

Associated Press
In this undated theater image released by Sam Rudy Media Relations, from left, Hunter Bell, Jeff Bowen, Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff are shown in a scene from "Noe.Here.This" at the Vineyard Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/Sam Rudy Media Relations, Carol Rosegg)
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In this undated theater image released by Sam Rudy Media Relations, from left, Hunter Bell, Jeff Bowen, Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff are shown in a scene from "Noe.Here.This" at the Vineyard Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/Sam Rudy Media Relations, Carol Rosegg)

NEW YORK (AP) — Mindfulness is ever elusive in our whirling, modern world of constant interruptions and electronic distractions. To actually focus on the present moment (to "be here now") is a rare thing.

Reminding us to seize the day is the peppy new 100-minute musical comedy about self-acceptance and embracing the present, "NOW.HERE.THIS." Written by the same trio responsible for the Obie-winning "(title of show)" that went on to a successful, Tony-nominated Broadway run in 2008, the funny, empathetic show features a very talented cast attempting to emulate Thomas Merton.

Smartly directed and choreographed by Michael Berresse, "NOW. HERE. THIS" is currently performing off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre. With a book by Hunter Bell and Susan Blackwell, and music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen, the show is based on a collaboration by Bell, Berresse, Blackwell, Heidi Blickenstaff, Jeff Bowen and Larry Pressgrove. Musical direction is by Pressgrove; Bell, Blackwell, Bowen and Blickenstaff co-star in the show.

The sweet, tuneful show facetiously refers to Merton as an "old dead monk," explaining earnestly that he believed if people could "get to the intersection of these three things...Now. Here. This...." they would "be truly present to experience more life."

To figure out what keeps them from being fully present in the moment, the quartet of early forty-somethings comically proceeds to "open up our mental knapsacks and shake out a few stories," thereby placing themselves, and the audience, firmly in their pasts. They share some of their formative childhood and college memories, overlaid with collective wisdom gleaned from the passage of time and the hard-earned ability to accept what they cannot change.

So back we go to the 1980s, via memories that are awash with a myriad of cheesy pop-culture references (for some reason, "Tootsie" is their favorite movie.) The team cleverly uses the backdrop of a natural history museum to place themselves on the continuum of "4.57 billion years of life on Earth."

Through snappy songs and stories, they relate useful facts about birds and reptiles as they pass through various exhibition halls and take turns sharing childhood reminiscences, many of them sounding quite personal and/or painful, although presented with as much humor and humanity as possible. There are issues about secretly being gay, the shame of living in a hoarder's household, and the overwhelming teenage desire to be popular and accepted.

Memories of personal shame are immortalized in the song "That Makes Me Hot" (hint: it's not hot in a good way.) Keeping up with an ever-changing roster of popular brand names, somehow inspired by the Hall of Human Origins, is mined for laughs in "That'll Never Be Me," which ends with a tuneful duet by Blackwell and Blickenstaff about hopelessly trying to be the (more popular, prettier, normal) person they wish to be.

The song lyrics are talky and full of irony, as when the two men sing "I'll get some stone-washed, skin tight Jordache jeans so no one will know that I'm gay!" The show is very funny, slick but eminently relatable for adults of all ages. It provides some useful insights about how to be true to yourself, as when a tour of the Hall of Tribal Masks leads to a segment about pretending to be more culturally sophisticated than one really is.

Sentiment is mined in a genuine way, as when Bell and Blickenstaff lovingly recall hanging out with their grandmothers. From the fun of playing card games and Boggle to the inevitable sorrow of visiting them in the hospital, the sweet memories lead up to a poignant reminder of the value of enjoying "small, clear, concise" moments as they occur.

Which is a good description of this entertaining, well-thought-out show: a compilation of small, recognizable moments melded from ordinary lives that underscore the need for people to embrace the reality of each moment. Like it says in the optimistic song "This Time", if it rains, start to swim, and go for the gusto. If it takes a tuneful musical to remind people to seize the moment and enjoy life more, "NOW.HERE.THIS." is perfect for the job.

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Online:

http://www.vineyardtheatre.org

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