Review: Going From Schlub to Slick in ‘The Other Josh Cohen’

One is beamish: a smooth, guitar-strumming cutup. The other is sweet but borderline pathetic.

And yet, in “The Other Josh Cohen,” the two characters — played delightfully by David Rossmer and Steve Rosen, who also wrote the show — are really the same man, just one year apart.

The idea is a neat one, and gives the peppy musical, which opened on Monday at the Westside Theater in Hell’s Kitchen, a solid foundation. In tracing the comic pathway by which a schlub becomes more self-assured, it tells a morality tale about the value of persistence. The show’s success, after eight years of tortuous development, does too.

Mr. Rosen plays Josh Cohen as he was a year ago, in the midst of a series of travails that will be familiar to young New Yorkers of any era. Hoping to be a writer, he scrapes by as a temp; hoping for love, he strikes out embarrassingly with every at-bat.

And now, in the run-up to Valentine’s Day — that trial by fire for the lonely — he comes home to find his shabby apartment fully cleaned out by a burglar, except for things he never wanted. A Neil Diamond CD. A “Hang In There, Kitty” page-a-day calendar.

This would be depressing, in the cute musical comedy manner, were it not for the constant presence of the upbeat Mr. Rossmer, who narrates the story from a happier place a year later. We see right away that things turned out well because this so-called Narrator Josh, dressed (by Nicole V. Moody) exactly like Mr. Rosen’s Josh, has lost both weight and an unfortunate mustache.

Though Narrator Josh cannot directly shape the past in which regular Josh is moping, he can certainly shape our view of it. With lyrics like “Losing everything is only the beginning,” he lets us know that the tide will soon turn. Perhaps not quite soon enough; even at 90 minutes this is something of a shaggy dog — or shaggy kitten — story.

But the shagginess pays off once Josh receives a mysterious letter from a woman in Florida who may or may not be a relative. (His “immigrant horndog” great-grandfather left a lot of Cohens strewn about.) The letter includes a gift that will supercharge Josh’s life if only he can accept it.

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Much of the show’s humor and heart derives from the ethical wrangling that results. It’s no spoiler to say that Josh’s painful choice eventually leads him to happiness. Only when adversity helps him understand who he really is can he find his “beshert”: his “meant to be.”

How the authors get there is better left in their hands — and those of the five other cast members, who play dozens of characters while doubling as the show’s band and backup. And if the songs never quite develop a signature sound, except for a few that aptly invoke Neil Diamond, they make up for it in their off-center point of view.

The gravel-voiced Mr. Diamond is sketched by Kate Wetherhead, who is terrific in a role listed in the program as A Lot of People. Louis Tucci (A Bunch of People), Hannah Elless (A Bunch of Other People), Luke Darnell (The Rest of the People) and Elizabeth Nestlerode (At Least One More Person) ably fill out the quirky story.

Their quick-take skills — along with those of Mr. Rossmer (“Peter and the Starcatcher”) and Mr. Rosen (“Spamalot”) — underline the loose-limbed, unscripted feel of the material. (The authors met, as children, during an improv exercise at arts camp.) The style recalls that of musicals like “[title of show]” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” with their apparently spontaneous digressions into the odd and outré.

That effect is of course an illusion here; the authors have been refining their show for years. In 2010, under the title “V-Day,” it played a few performances at the New York Musical Theater Festival; under the current title, it ran at the SoHo Playhouse for a month in 2012. Subsequent productions at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., and the Geva Theater Center in Rochester honed but also rethought the story, direction and design.

That “The Other Josh Cohen” avoided the curse of overprocessing as it trekked from theaters accommodating a few dozen to the Paper Mill’s 1,200 is thus a bit of a miracle, not unlike the one that eventually rewards Josh for his tenacity. At the 250-seat Westside, under the unpretentious direction of Hunter Foster, it has achieved a fitting size and shape.

To take it any further, as the authors may hope, would be to tempt fate — and also to undermine the modesty of the material. “The Other Josh Cohen” is a charmer, touching on real issues without pummeling them. It doesn’t need to push harder or further; in knowing itself, it has already found its beshert.

Follow Jesse Green on Twitter: @JesseKGreen.

The Other Josh Cohen

Tickets Through Feb. 24, 2019 at Westside Theater, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

Credits By David Rossmer & Steve Rosen; directed by Hunter Foster; sets by Carolyn Mraz; costumes by Nicole V. Moody; lighting by Jeff Croiter; sound by Bart Fasbender; orchestrations by Dan Lipton and David Rossmer; hair and wigs by J. Jared Janas; production stage manager, Rebecca McBee; production supervisor, Mary Duffe; general management, Brierpatch Productions. Presented by Suzanne Gilad, Larry Rogowsky, Millicent and Marks, Daniel and Ryan Wellington, Lisa and Stan Moss, Missy Barcomb-Doyle and Ken Doyle, Rick Lundbom, Drew Desky and Dane Levens/Michael Mills, Peter and Christine Harrison, Jonathan E. Rebell and Larry Swets.

Cast Steve Rosen, David Rossmer, Luke Darnell, Hannah Elless, Elizabeth Nestlerode, Louis Tucci and Kate Wetherhead.

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