Review: ‘A Commercial Jingle for Regina Comet’ Is Missing a Few Notes

Once upon a time, Regina Comet was a pop star who filled arenas. Now that her career desperately needs a reboot, she and her team have a brilliant idea: They will come out with a perfume — sorry, a fragrance, called Relevance — and peg her comeback to it. Because of course listeners will just follow that scent all the way to Regina’s big concert.

Adding a thick frosting of improbability to this far-fetched cake, Regina hires a pair of young songwriters so unhip that they idolize Barry Manilow — in 2021 — to pen the song her future depends on, the jingle for the fragrance.

The focus of the story is not, as you might expect, Regina Comet, but rather the untried tunesmiths who simply, coyly, are called Man 2 and Other Man, and are portrayed by the show’s creators, Ben Fankhauser and Alex Wyse. Starring roles notwithstanding, Bryonha Marie Parham plays the title character in “A Commercial Jingle for Regina Comet” with tireless zest and good humor.

“Jingle” is mostly set in the office of the writers, where the walls are lined with so many notes, papers and photos that you might think they are TV detectives tracking a criminal. (Wilson Chin did the scenic design, which appears to have been labor-intensive.) But the object of their obsessive hunt is even more elusive than the Zodiac Killer: They desperately want to write “One Hit Song.” This would be a realistic goal only in a universe in which the Billboard cast-album chart decisively influenced mainstream pop culture.

Man 2 and Other Man invite Regina (who always wears a shapeless ’80s-style tracksuit) to brainstorm. She’s open to a samba, or maybe some bossa nova, but the resulting song, “Say Hello,” sounds like a show-tune-ized single from Backstreet Boys or ’NSync. It is the most enjoyable number of the evening, yet it also reflects the production’s uncertain tone: Are we meant to laugh with the ingenuity of the Men or at their ineptness?

The most frustrating element of the show is that despite a last-minute sort-of plot twist, Regina mostly serves as an unwitting wedge between the rookies. Their relationship gets so tense that in one particularly brutal dispute they chuck their notebooks to the floor in disgust.

The production, directed by Marshall Pailet, moves at a steady clip, and Fankhauser and Wyse throw so much at the wall that once in a while, a joke acquires a bizarre kind of sheen through sheer surrealism.

“I read she has an honorary degree in astrophysics,” Man 2 says of Regina. “That makes sense,” Other Man replies, “because her voice is so … good.”

In the role of Other Man, Wyse, looking like an overgrown summer camper in his neat shirt and shorts — another costume decision that’s hard to parse — excels at this kind of exchange. Add his character’s penchant for borscht belt humor (“Take my Grandma, for instance,” one line starts, “no really, take her —”) and you’re halfway to an actual comic role.

“A Commercial Jingle for Regina Comet,” an Off Broadway production, is the first new in-person musical to open since Covid-19 shut down theaters last year, and it feels like the first pancake to come out of the pan: It’s a little undercooked, a little misshapen, but we’ll eat it anyway because hey, it’s still a pancake.

A Commercial Jingle for Regina Comet
Through Nov. 14 at DR2 Theater, Manhattan; 800-447-7400, reginacomet.com. Running time: 80 minutes.

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