Throwback: Despite admirable intentions, Seattle Rep’s Jaws-inspired Bruce is struggling to stay afloat

In the summer of 1975 Jaw opened to critical praise on the big screen. The film is now considered the first summer blockbuster and gave a boost to the career of a young director named Steven Spielberg. In the years that followed, the behind-the-scenes story of the disastrous Making of Jaw has been used in numerous documentaries and books, including Carl Gottlieb’s bestseller The Jaws Protocol. Now, almost 50 years later, the story has been turned into a musical. Even though Brucenow running at Seattle Rep has respectable intentions, bogged down by too much exposure, a poor score and too short a run time.

Brucewritten by bandstand Contributors Robert Taylor (book/lyrics) and Richard Oberacker (music/book/lyrics) and directed and choreographed by Donna Feore, follows the development of Jaw from the novel form to the long and troubled six months of filming. Steven Spielberg (Jarrod Spector) is a young director with childlike wonders and poised to make “the big one,” as reflected in the opening number. Fresh off a smaller budget film, Jaw is his chance to prove to Universal and the public that he has what it takes to be as good as his cinematic heroes.

Although the concept of Bruce (named after the perpetually malfunctioning mechanical shark) has great potential, neither Taylor’s book nor Oberacker’s score ever soars. The songs are musically uninteresting, and the book hastily introduces us to a multitude of characters who are just as quickly forgotten. The show focuses so much on retelling historical events with accuracy that much-needed character moments are cut short. Consequently, we have little time to attend to what happened. Before we know it, those brief moments have passed and the background information we learned is so irrelevant to the story that it’s hard to see why the writers even bothered.

Well-known characters are portrayed by actors with great likeness. Hans Altwies and Geoff Packard (who play Jaw stars Robert Shaw and Roy Scheider), the role looks enough to be believable, while inclusive casting is also and powerfully employed for several characters: film editor Verna Fields (E. Faye Butler), producer David Brown (Timothy McCuen Piggee), and Casting director Shari Rhodes (Alexandria J. Henderson). A vocal powerhouse, Butler sings her big number with an enthusiasm reminiscent of Judy Garland. Henderson, also with an excellent voice, conveys inspiring ambition and self-confidence.

A scene from the new musical Bruce near Seattle Rep
(© Lindsay Thomas)

However, the real star here is Spector. Bruce is told through the eyes of Spielberg, who frequently comments on the audience, both sung and spoken. Though direct reference is made to Spielberg’s childhood worldview, his passion and excitement are amplified thanks to Spector’s wide-eyed performance. With his pure embodiment of the young, humble director, he gets the best out of the material.

One could argue that this musical is wrongly titled. It really has little to do with Bruce himself; In fact, aside from some drawn designs shown via projections, we don’t even see the monstrosity in all its glory, which is a stunning missed opportunity. Still, the stage and projection design shine. The first of the two set pieces (by Jason Sherwood) is a Hollywood Squares-style cubicle wall with six different offices. In the second half, Shawn Duan’s glorious projections feature the seaside town of Martha’s Vineyard, where Jaw was shot. The wild waves and blustery weather transport the audience effectively and provide a distinctive flair, making this portion of the show particularly enjoyable to watch (despite an overall visual allure in Feore’s staging).

The fundamental problem with Bruce isn’t that it’s a musical. Oberacker and Taylor are right in their inclination to musicalize this, and Spielberg makes a compelling lead character. However, with a rushed book and a weak score, it plays like a show still in the workshop. It’s curious why this musical, with a definite two-act structure, has no intermission and only lasts an hour and forty minutes. The end of the story is hastily and unsatisfactorily resolved; we leave the facts about the creatives involved, but there is little emotional resonance.

A longer running time would solve both the rushed ending and most of the character issues, and give the story room to breathe. As the show winds down, the writers rely on the overused trope of repeating seemingly “inspirational” lines from before that, unfortunately, are never as effective as they’d like.

And if there’s no Bruce, at least change the title.

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