Only stellar management keeps Horizon Theatre's The Water Coolers: An Office Musical from being as forced as a company's mandatory team-building exercise. Creators Thomas Michael Allen and Sally Allen traffic in some groaningly obvious jokes and song pastiches, but at Horizon, director Heidi Cline and a charming ensemble keep the play from feeling like work.
The musical follows five corporate co-workers, including the self-proclaimed "office hottie" (Jason MacDonald), a nay-saying "devil's advocate" (Jeff McKerley), a stressed-out career woman (Agnes Harty) and a perky junior employee (Lauren Jones) who creates inspirational stationery in her spare time. Across the board, the cast exudes confidence and killer timing – Jones is a real find – but Brandon O'Dell wins the heart of the show while playing various facets of the office "dork." He comes on like a gunslinger as a tech-support savior ("the IT Cowboy"), tenderly sings "A Love Song" to his Palm Pilot and, in "The Great Pretender," uses the Platters' old hit to reveal how he only pretends to be working all day.
As "The Great Pretender" suggests, The Water Coolers aims for cheap laughs and knee-jerk recognition with obvious song parodies, such as "In My Cube" for the Beach Boys' "In My Room." Changing the Bangles' "Manic Monday" to "Panic Monday," however, seems so lazy that you wonder why the creators even bothered. Some songs prove more inventive, such as the satire of the "Who Will Buy" number from Oliver! The workers enter separately, hawking Girl Scout cookies, gift wrap, etc.: "Who will buy this crap from my kid's school?" Even when achingly corny, the numbers often find redemption in the spunky performances or Cline's and McKerley's joyously dorky choreography. Harty's sincerity keeps "One Rung Higher," a serious number about the trade-offs between career and family, from feeling too mawkish and out of place.
At its least inspired, The Water Coolers seems on par with the even more thudding hit Menopause: The Musical. Taken with Actor's Express' The Great American Trailer Park Musical last spring, the show represents a sad commentary on the state of American musical comedy and the tastes of its audience. Menopause played in Atlanta for more than a year, so one can understand the temptation of a hit-hungry playhouse to program something like it. Witty musicals such as Avenue Q may be the exception to the rule, and more commonly, the likes of The Water Coolers are what the market will bear.
The Water Coolers: An Office Musical. Through Nov. 11. $22-$33. Wed.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. 404-584-7450. www.horizontheatre.com.
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