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Original Off-Broadway Cast and Crew Reprise Musical Comedy "The Other Josh Cohen" at Paper Mill Playhouse

Original Off-Broadway Cast and Crew Reprise Musical Comedy "The Other Josh Cohen" at Paper Mill Playhouse

In the fall of 2012, an offbeat musical debuted at an off-Broadway theater in lower Manhattan. “The Other Josh Cohen” was the tale of a broke, single man who finds his apartment robbed just before Valentine’s Day, but soon finds his luck changed when a mysterious $56,000 check arrives in the mail. The score featured a catchy batch of acoustic rock that mimicked early Neil Diamond records. And the three musicians who played it performed right on stage with the actors, sometimes playing small roles themselves.

In other words?

josh cohen.jpg

“It’s one surprise after the other,” original cast member Kate Wetherhead explains. “The show is not predictable in any way. It keeps the audiences wondering what’s going to happen next and laughing the whole time.”

And now it’s coming to New Jersey. The original cast and crew have revived the show at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn — including co-creators Steve Rosen and David Rossmer, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics and are playing the two lead roles.  The production opens Wednesday and runs through March 16.

Wetherhead reprises the wild performance that nabbed her a nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical at last year’s Drama Desk Awards. (The show also scored nods for Best Musical, Best Music, Best Lyrics, and Best Book, while Rosen was up for Best Actor.) Actually, Wetherhead gives a few performances — as the title character’s mother, neighbor, and love interests.

It’s the continuation of a successful career. Wetherhead was an original cast member in a pair of Tony-nominated shows: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and “Legally Blonde.” She also is the writer and star of “Submissions Only,” a web series about casting and auditions that she co-created with fellow stage actor Andrew Keenan-Bolger. The show is about to enter its third season.

Jersey Arts’ Brent Johnson spoke with Wetherhead about the quirkiness of “Josh Cohen,” the state of musical theatre, and the future of her web series.

Jersey Arts: How well has this show come together?

Kate Wetherhead: It has been such a blast. It’s been a reunion for most of us. For all of us mostly, with the addition of new cast members. It’s a show we all love.

JA: Why is this show different from other musicals?

KW: There are a few reasons. The message of the show ultimately is: Doing the right thing is always better in the end. Even if it’s a struggle to choose to do right thing, it will pay off in the end. Even if it’s just for your soul. Being kind and noble and living life with integrity is always the better choice. It’s an amazing idea to build a show around. Especially when the show it’s built around is always very funny and charming and musically exciting. Something with such a straightforward message, you might find in children’s show. But the way they crafted it is so sophisticated and charming and hysterical.

Then, there’s the sort of package it comes in. Both writers are incredibly funny people. And the show itself allows the cast to show off a whole host of talents. We have really skilled musicians playing multiple instruments, and the next moment becoming different character with a different voice, then a going back to band, then coming out as another character.

JA: Broadway now seems to be filled with shows that are either revivals or based on popular movies. How rare is an original musical like this these days?

KW: It’s becoming increasingly rare. It becomes increasingly harder to convince people that original material is worth producing. Yet, it’s from these new works that new voices emerge. The writers of tomorrow, the ones that will prevail, are the ones who are original, innovative thinkers. Which isn’t to say there isn’t credible and admirable work to be made from movies, because there is. But I think we can’t underestimate the importance of new writers and their story — the stories they want to tell. Maybe the title isn’t recognizable or people in it aren’t as famous, but if it’s good, it’s because it’s connecting to its audience. And I think that’s what an audience is looking for.

Actress Kate Wetherhead

Actress Kate Wetherhead

JA: You play quite a few characters in this show. How challenging is that?

KW: I think the most challenging thing is making clean transitions — making sure first of all that you are remembering everything in the proper sequence. I spend most of the show making quick costume changes. I play 15-16 different characters. The challenge is: Not only achieving the efficiency of that — making that as efficient and smooth as possible — but making sure each character is fresh and different and real. I think it’s easy to make these characters caricatures. I try very hard to make them real people. And sometimes you have to achieve that in a quick amount of time.

JA: You grew up in Vermont. So, how does a young girl get into theater growing up in the Green Mountain State?

KW: There are enough arts to inspire a 6-year-old kid. I went to see a community theater production of “West Side Story,” and I was hooked from that moment on. I knew that exactly what I wanted to do. I found whatever means I could — whether it be after-school programs, summer camps, community theater, school plays, voice lessons, dance lessons. I did everything I could to become proficient at the art form.

I think I always knew I would end up in New York. I went to college in Connecticut at Wesleyan University. I did not major in theater there. I majored in English. But I moved New York in 1998 and went to Circle In The Square Theater School for two years. I built up my resume, got my first Broadway show understudying in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” I was part of the original cast of “Legally Blonde.” After that, I’ve done a lot of regional theater and off-Broadway theater.

I took a turn in 2010 with the web-only series. With that, I relate to David and Steve on another level, as well — as a writer, too. I’ve been wearing two different hats as a writer and an actor.

JA: And the internet allows people a better chance to do that.

KW: Exactly right. I had been itching to create something for a while. I just didn’t know what that was. I had thought of doing a one-woman show, but that was not quite right. And there wasn’t a play in my head I wanted to write. It was my husband [Jeffrey Croiter, a Tony Award-winning lighting designer] who suggested a web series. He saw I had become friends with Andrew Keenan-Bolger, who already had a web presence. He recognized the potential for a collaboration.

When he said that, something clicked. It just made sense to me. I don’t enjoy all sitcoms, but the good ones, I really, really dig. The acting style is something I have always responded to. For years, I always wanted to be in a sitcom, but that proves to be elusive. With the internet creating more possibilities, suddenly the opportunity to make my own sitcom and put myself in it was available. Originally, it was just an opportunity to showcase what I thought I could do as an actor. But it became so much more than that. Acting became secondary to writing for this world. It became a lot more to write for my friends than myself.

JA: What do you consider among the good sitcoms?

KW: “Arrested Development” is incredible. I’m a big “Parks and Rec” fan. I like “The Larry Sanders Show.” Character-driven comedy is what I respond to the most. Not just setup-joke, setup-joke. I like getting to know characters and then delighting in how they respond to situations.

JA: What’s next for you?

KW: We’ll be releasing a third season of the show soon. And there’s something that’s come out of “Submissions Only.” Andrew and I have been hired by Penguin Group to write a young-adult book series. We have handed in our final draft of the first book. The process of getting ready for that has begun.

JA: Your career has become quite varied.

KW: It’s so true: You never know what’s going to happen. I don’t have any acting gigs lined up after this. But there are a few writing projects in the works. There’s a musical I want to write, a screenplay I want to write. There are irons in the fire. I just have to find time and discipline.

JA: Is it easier to do this show having performed in it already?

KW: It doesn’t really matter. I wouldn’t say it’s easy. It’s more comfortable. There’s less fear. But I don’t want to mistake that for complacency. No one is coming into this saying, ‘Oh, we got this.’ It’s a very active re-entry.

JA: Why did you all revisit the show?

KW: I think there was always the hope we’d be dong it again. I think when we did it in New York, there was talk of continuing it immediately in a different theater. Then, the producers chose to wait. I think they want to see how this show fares in a larger venue.

“The Other Josh Cohen” runs February 19-March 16, 2014 at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ. For tickets or more information, visit https://tickets.papermill.org/public.

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