|Nael Nacer and Tiffany Chen rehearse a scene from Suffolk University’s ‘‘Car Talk: The Musical!!!’’ at Modern Theatre. (Erik Jacobs for the Boston Globe)|
Suffolk players get a lot of mileage out of ‘Car Talk’
Musical built around NPR hit is a gas for university theater department
‘Car Talk: The Musical!!!’’ is the kind of show in which a character borrows the tune of “Maria’’ from “West Side Story’’ to sing a love song to “my Kia.’’
Written and directed by Suffolk University professor Wesley Savick, the show also features the recorded voices of WBUR (90.9 FM) automotive demigods Ray and Tom Magliozzi, aka Click and Clack, the Boston-based hosts of NPR’s hit “Car Talk’’ since 1987.
“There’s no way to do a musical about ‘Car Talk’ without them, so I asked them, ‘Would you kindly consider the role of the Wizard of Cahs?’ And that tickled them,’’ says Savick. “They’ve been such excellent sports.’’
Suffolk students play almost all the roles in this musical, which makes its world premiere at Suffolk’s restored Modern Theatre on Washington Street, for six performances beginning on Thursday.
The plot finds Russell D. “Rusty’’ Fenders — self-described as “a divorced middle-aged heart condition with a lousy job living in a studio apartment in Allston’’ — agonizing over the fate of his ’93 Kia Pride, while his long-suffering officemate Sheila sympathizes. Fenders falls for a walking midlife crisis named Miata C. La Chassis and ends up in a place called the Emerald Garage. His life is changed by words of wisdom from the Wizard of Cahs, a giant automotive oracle that speaks with the Magliozzis’ voices.
Ultimately, this is a show about romance, not oil changes, with a mix of original songs by composer Michael Wartofsky, Savick’s friend, and Broadway hits with parody lyrics of an automotive nature.
Savick grew up in Milwaukee and was still living there 20-odd years ago when a friend said he should give “Car Talk’’ a listen. “I thought nothing could interest me less,’’ Savick says. “But this person was very insistent, so I listened and was instantly enchanted and beguiled.’’
Now a loyal fan, he’s spent a lot of time lately thinking about just what it is that makes the Magliozzis and their show so appealing. He says it goes beyond the advice and even the wisecracks.
“They help people with loss, change, frustration, and disappointment,’’ says Savick. “To own a car is to know bitterness intimately. To live in this world might be that, too. To own a car is a very good metaphor, because it breaks down, it deteriorates, and so do we. It’s cause for bitterness . . . and they’re graced with the ability to turn that bitterness into humanity.’’
Savick drives a rusty 1986 Camry that he says is five years overdue for the scrap yard. “When my timing belt died on the VFW Parkway last fall, and I had a whole day planned, and now it was going to be all about towing and money, that was a font of bitterness,’’ he says with a grin. “They put things like that into context.’’
Approached through an old friend on the faculty, the Magliozzis were quite willing to participate in the musical as long as they didn’t have to go near the stage, Savick says. (They also declined requests to be interviewed for this story, with Doug Berman, executive producer of “Car Talk,’’ writing in an e-mail, “Call us for a comment if the show ever gets to Broadway. Even Broadway in Somerville.’’)
The Magliozzis did come to a singalong with cast members — they have quite nice voices, Savick says — and recorded the Wizard’s lines in two sessions in recent weeks at a studio provided by WBUR.
The production marks a coming-out party for the Suffolk theater department at the Modern, which reopened last fall, just down the block from the Paramount Theatre and the Boston Opera House. The Modern has already hosted music performances, film series, and talks by artists such as Dennis Lehane and Michael Cimino.
“Just being on Washington Street is a whole new ballgame for us, and we’re catching up to what that means,’’ says Savick.
“Frankly it’s been kind of head-spinning,’’ adds professor Marilyn Plotkins, chair of the theater department. Suffolk’s preexisting theaters, at its building on Temple Street on the back side of Beacon Hill, aren’t exactly on the beaten path for theater fans.
“We’ve been hosting and producing cultural events for decades, but we were limited because we were on a residential street. So suddenly to be part of the revitalization of lower Washington Street means we can do all kinds of things we couldn’t do up there,’’ Plotkins says, including more shows, longer runs, more rehearsals, and summer productions.
Suffolk alum Nael Nacer (’07), who recently starred in “The Aliens’’ at Company One, plays Rusty Fenders alongside student performers including Vicki Hanes as Sheila, Kevin Hadfield as Dream Russell, and Tiffany Chen as Miata.
Hanes and Hadfield will graduate this spring, so playing the stage of shiny new Modern now makes them sad to leave. “It’s like, rats! Although we get to perform in it six times,’’ says Hadfield.
Savick, meanwhile, hasn’t mentioned his old Camry to the Magliozzis.
“I’m kind of hoping I can get in good enough graces that I can finally raise the question of my car,’’ he says. “I thought that could sour the deal, so I’ve left that off the table so far.’’
Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.