A DORKUS LINE: Kevin Pariseau as IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson (center left) and Stanley Barhorek as Bill Gates in Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of Nerds.
Too perfect. Fifteen minutes after the opening-night curtain was slated to come up on Nerds, a musical about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, came an apologetic announcement from Philadelphia Theatre Company. They were running late — technical difficulties. But within five minutes, it was back on track, and the show, which involves considerable computer-generated wizardry, went off without a hitch.
Nerds takes on nothing less than the invention of the personal computer, and pretty much everything that followed. As the title suggests, the show is closer to good-natured blasphemy than hagiography. Beginning in 1975, as Gates and Jobs were just starting down their long roads to fame and fortune, Nerds follows their rivalry to the present. (Acknowledging Jobs’ death, his final appearance 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, not least the bubbling energy and enthusiasm. The music is not always memorable, and the jokes are unreliable — the hit-to-miss ratio is roughly two to one. But, most of the time, Nerds is jolly good fun.
I’m not sure the personality contrast between Gates and Jobs should be quite as lopsided as it is here, though. Stanley Bahorek sings well, but perhaps goes too far with Gates’ famous lack of charisma. Matt Bradley as Jobs steals every scene he’s in with a deliciously droll performance, equal parts sexy pothead and sleazy huckster. Benny Elledge is delightful as the weird but likeable Jobs ally Steve Wozniak — whenever the two are on, the stage lights up.
It should be said that the stage also literally lights up. You may remember PTC’s earlier version of Nerds at their old digs at Plays & Players, the surprise hit of 2007. The stagecraft possible at P&P was bare-bones; the new production at swanky Suzanne Roberts Theatre utilizes an array of sophisticated and often dazzling computerized design elements. This Nerds looks like a million bucks.
That’s only one of the changes. There’s a new cast, director (Casey Hushion), choreographer (Joshua Bergasse) and design team. And while the story and most of the score remain the same, there are some revisions, with several new songs and plot points.
As any iOS7 or Windows 8 user knows, upgrades are a mixed bag. In the plus column, the Nerds reboot is more sleekly staged and sounds considerably better — you still won’t leave humming, but most numbers are entertaining and effective in context.
But a heavy directorial hand that takes the show’s title too seriously doesn’t help the talented cast. Instead of evoking young-adult brainiacs, the actors seem to be playing arch versions of children — more than once, I was reminded of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. While this reboot is smoother and more luxe, the earlier version had a scrappy, lovable exuberance that’s gotten a bit lost. It’s sort of like my iPhone — an amazing, fun piece of machinery, but sometimes I miss the clunky charm of my old Zaurus.
Through Dec. 29, Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., 215-985-0420, philadelphiatheatrecompany.org
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