Two Bergen County-raised theater makers have created a sweet and winning musical comedy now at the Westside Theatre on 43rd Street. “The Other Josh Cohen” tells the tale of a lovable schnook who just can’t get a break, until he does. We know he does because there are two versions of the schnook on stage — the before and the after, so to speak. The “before” Josh Cohen is a little dumpier, with a mustache that seems to belong to a different era. The “after” version has lost the mustache, substituting hipper stubble, and looks a bit sleeker and less tormented. He hasn’t given up the red-checked shirt, however.
We meet our heroes on the day that someone breaks into Josh Cohen’s first floor Manhattan apartment and steals everything he owns, except for one Neil Diamond CD. In fact, we meet the burglar before anyone else in the show, as he methodically empties the stage before the lights go down and while the audience is still chatting and looking at their phones. The burglary is the last straw — or maybe not.
Josh can’t get a real writing job, can’t get a date for Valentine’s Day, and can’t afford new furniture or a decent computer. His longest relationship lasted six months and that woman was put off by a song he wrote just for her. Can it get much worse? No wonder he thinks Neil life (as in Neil Diamond) is so much better than real life.
David Rossmer, formerly of River Edge, co-wrote the book, music, and lyrics with Steve Rosen, who plays Josh Cohen. (Rossmer plays the “after” Josh, who acts as narrator.) Rossmer did the orchestrations with his boyhood friend Dan Lipton, also from River Edge. Both the Lipton and the Rossmer families have been members of the Jewish Community Center in Paramus for decades, and Dan and David became bar mitzvah there. Rossmer and Lipton have been collaborating since they were in college, co-writing “Don’t Quit Your Night Job,” an after-hours review that featured a varying cast of well-known performers. The two met Steve Rosen at French Woods performing-arts summer camp in upstate New York. The three men have a long list of credits: Rosen has appeared in “Spamalot,” “The Farnsworth Invention,” and “Guys and Dolls,” all on Broadway; Rossmer originated the role of Ted in “Peter and the Starcatcher” and appeared in “Titanic” and “Fiddler on the Roof”; Lipton, a pianist and composer, conducted “The Last Ship” by Sting on Broadway and has toured with Broadway stars Kelli O’Hara and Audra McDonald. Lipton and Rossmer now are collaborating on writing the show “Monopoly” for Broadway, with a book by Rick Elice of “Jersey Boys.”
Josh’s life takes a strange turn when a letter arrives in the mail from a return address in Florida. There is a very generous check inside. Josh can’t figure out who the sender — Irma Cohen — is, but deduces she must be a relative he’s forgotten. That launches one of the show’s most entertaining songs, “Samuel Cohen’s Family Tree,” replete with a dancing chasid, where every person manages to find a partner, “except me,” moans Josh. As Josh begins to unravel the mystery of the letter, he faces a moral quandary. The resolution underscores his — and the show’s — essential menschlichkeit.
As directed by Hunter Foster, “The Other Josh Cohen” bounces from song to song with high energy and infectious humor. The very able cast plays multiple roles as well as their own instruments, and the costume and wig designers do great work. One of the show’s greatest virtues is its modesty; it’s not a theatrical groundbreaker but uses its small scale to great advantage to deliver an enjoyable and funny 90 minutes.
“The Other Josh Cohen” has had a long development history, as do most musicals nowadays. Originally developed at New York Musical Festival, it premiered in 2012 at the SoHo Playhouse. In 2014, it played a sold-out engagement at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, which was followed by a limited engagement in Rochester, New York, and in January of this year at Geva Theatre Center. Geva is the associate producer for this current production at Westside Theatre. The musical was nominated for six Drama Desk Awards and the Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical. It’s lots of fun.