Oh, it’s just too perfect. At 7:15 on the opening night of Nerds, a musical about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, PTC Producing Artistic Director Sara Garonzik came out to announce apologetically that they were running late due to technical difficulties. (Don’t worry – five minutes later, the curtain went up, and the show, which involves considerable computer-generated scenic wizardry, came off without a hitch.)
Nerds takes on nothing less than the invention of the personal computer, and pretty much everything that follows from that. As the title suggests, the show is closer to good-natured blasphemy than hagiography, and its particular focus is the Gates/Jobs rivalry. Beginning in 1975, when the two men were just starting on their long roads to fame and fortune, Nerds follows the story to the present day. (Acknowledging Jobs’ death, his final appearance here in the finale is as a heavenly presence, not unlike Grease’s Teen Angel).
It’s a great premise for a musical, and there’s a lot to like about the show, which bubbles with energy and enthusiasm. The music is not always memorable, and the jokes are unreliable – I’d estimate the hit-to-miss ratio at roughly two-to-one – but most of the time, Nerds is jolly good fun.
As pretty much the entire world knows, Jobs became staggeringly rich. Gates is even richer, but Jobs was the glamorous one. Still, I’m not sure the comparison between them should seem quite as lopsided as it does here. Stanley Bahorek, who plays Gates, sings well, but goes perhaps too far in suggesting Gates’ famously charisma-free personality. On the other side, Matt Bradley (Jobs) steals every scene he’s in with a deliciously droll performance that’s equal parts sexy pothead and sleazy huckster. Benny Elledge is also delightful as the weird-but-likeable Steve Wozniak, who was Jobs’ closest ally. Every moment these two take to the stage, the show lights up.
It should also be said that the stage literally lights up – a lot. Many audience members will remember Nerds from 2007, when an earlier version done by PTC in their old digs at the Plays and Players Theatre became the surprise hit of the season. (Full disclosure – I was one of its many fans.) The stagecraft available there was pretty much bare bones; the new production at the swanky Suzanne Roberts Theatre utilizes a wide array of sophisticated (and, no doubt, computerized) and often dazzling design elements. This Nerds looks like a million bucks.
In fact, the show has changed in a number of ways. We have a new director (Casey Hushion), choreographer (Joshua Bergasse) and design team; also a new cast. While the story and most of the score (book and lyrics are by Jordan Allen-Dutton and Erik Weiner) remain the same, there are some revisions here, too, with several new songs and plot-points added.
As any IOS 7 or Windows 8 user knows, the thing about upgrades is they’re often a mixed bag. In the plus column, the Nerds reboot is not only more sleekly staged, it also sounds considerably better – you still won’t leave humming the songs, but most numbers are entertaining and effective in context.
On the other side, a heavy directorial hand that takes the show’s title too seriously doesn’t help the talented current cast. Instead of evoking young adult brainiacs, the actors here seem to be playing arch versions of children – more than once, I thought I might be watching You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. More than anything, while this reboot certainly looks more luxe and functions more smoothly, the earlier version had a scrappy, loveable exuberance that’s gotten a little bit lost. Nerds still makes for a fun evening in the theatre, but I feel about it a bit the same way I feel about my iPhone – it’s an amazing piece of machinery, but sometimes I miss the clunky charm of my old Zaurus.
Through December 29, Philadelphia Theatre Co. at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., 215-985-0420, philadelphiatheatrecompany.org