NEW YORK — The backdrop that frames the breezy musical comedy "The Other Josh Cohen" is a set of bare, white walls in a low-end New York apartment – unblemished if not for a few bright square patches where posters used to hang before a burglary stripped the title character of nearly everything, right down to a freshly-baked Bundt cake in his refrigerator.
The empty walls provide a blank canvas for this splashy, colorful production, which opened Sunday at SoHo Playhouse. And while the monochromatic songs in this musical don't do much to improve its hue, a bright cast, fresh humor and thoughtful arrangements make "Josh Cohen" a study in how to make the most of a so-so score.
The show's co-creators and co-stars, David Rossmer and Steve Rosen, have roots in improv comedy and it shows, with their impressive ability to play to the audience and propensity to giggle at each other's buffoonery.
Rossmer and Rosen collaborated on book, music and lyrics, and star as Josh and the other Josh. (There's actually a third Josh Cohen, whom we'll get to shortly.) The tandem is best known as one-half of the foursome that created the improv hit "Don't Quit Your Night Job."
Rossmer plays the narrator Josh Cohen, who recounts a story about his younger, heavier, mustachioed self, played by Rosen.
The younger Josh is broke and hopelessly single with Valentine's Day fast-approaching, when he gets mail containing a $56,000 check that he believes is a gift from a distant relative. His initial elation is replaced by a moral dilemma when he realizes the check was intended for some other Josh Cohen.
Rosen is hilarious and affecting with his anxiety-attack style and strained internal banter with the wiser and cooler narrator Josh, with whom he displays an Abbott and Costello-like chemistry that produces some of the show's biggest laughs.
Many of the songs, tunefully speaking, are about as bare as the shelves in Josh's apartment, which display nothing more than a Neil Diamond CD, a porn DVD case (just the case) and a Darth Vader speakerphone.
The compositions are reminiscent of that fun-loving college friend who would make you laugh by playing the only two songs they know on acoustic guitar while improvising silly alternative lyrics. It's an amusing if mindless way to kill 10 minutes during study breaks, if your friend could play a few chords and had a good sense of humor – qualities that are immediately apparent in Rossmer and Rosen.
But it's a tough way to fill up 90 minutes.
Fortunately, this musical has a lot going for it beyond its so-called Neil Diamond-inspired score – a claim that doesn't seem fair to Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. The production is elevated by its talented, energetic cast members, who act, sing, dance and rotate on keyboards, drums and various stringed instruments.
Principal among these performers is Kate Wetherhead, ("The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," "Legally Blonde") who is consistently charming in countless roles, including Josh's kvetching mother, downstairs neighbor and elusive love interests.
Vadim Feichtner ("The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee") also plays several characters, most notably Josh's father, who provides a highlight with one of the most memorable voicemail greetings in the history of telecommunications.
Feichtner also serves as musical director and shares arranging credits with Rossmer, dressing up a number of otherwise unexceptional tunes with ear-pleasing vocal harmonies.
The arrangements also undoubtedly benefited from the guidance of the show's director, Ted Sperling, who won a 2005 Tony Award for his orchestration of "The Light in the Piazza."
"The Other Josh Cohen," scheduled to appear at SoHo Playhouse through Nov. 11, should be a welcome diversion for those willing to endure mostly ponderous music in the name of clever lyrics and cute humor.