Too much is riding on this musical finale, frankly. The season has been criticized for being too uneven, and the finale concept inevitably feels like a Hail Mary. It couldn't help but fail on so many levels. Nothing could ever equal the introduction of Nightman, number one. Going back to the well is a mistake for a show that flourishes on zagging, not zigging, number two.
But something beautiful is hidden in this too-hyped overthought concept of an episode. His name is Charlie.
From the very beginning, Charlie discards his usual wildcard role (immortalized and named just this season) in order to give us a full half-hour of Charlie In Charge. We've seen it before, and it's always surprising and wonderful: When Charlie takes on a leadership role, he becomes completely competent all of a sudden. He's so sweetly sane. The impetus is his sudden, apparently inexplicable decision to write a musical based on his Nightman and Dayman characters. (The rest of the gang can't figure out the angle behind this decision. Dee: "Whose face are we shoving this musical in?" Dennis: "Who is this versus?") The trouble starts when Charlie and his assistant Artemis gather the cast for the first rehearsal and everyone starts complaining about their characters. Charlie isn't the slighly deranged, overly-enthusiastic follower of most episodes; he's the put-upon leader, the center in the group of eccentrics rather than the chief eccentric. And watching him try to hold it all together is quite enough to make this finale worthwhile.
The musical is about a princess who wants to have sex with a little tiny baby, and a cat-eyed Nightman who is allowed by a troll to rape said little boy, transforming him by the power of his musk into the Dayman who conquers the Nightman and then gets together with the princess. At least that's the literal depiction; at a metaphorical level, Charlie insists that it's all about innocence or something. It's not a comedy, although Mac reliably moved the crowd to laughter with his attempt at cat-like karate menace. ("Goddamn it," he sighs, breaking character after his martial arts moves inspire howls of amusement.) What it is, really, is an elaborate proposal to the waitress, whom Charlie lured to the show with the promise that he'd stop bothering her. She says no, he claims that he never signed anything, the world goes back to normal. And a bunch of old people in the audience leave very confused.
Charlie's show contains one Sondheim-esque duet about making love to tiny babies, and a showstopper about the troll demanding money from the Nightman for the privilege of sexing the boy up from the rear. "You gotta pay the troll toll to get into this boy's hole," Frank croons, oblivious to Charlie's exasperated explanation that it's supposed to be "boy's soul." The whole thing gets very meta when Dennis and Mac exchange muttered asides to each other as Mac screws up the staging. "Don't say 'stage freeze,' just do it," Dennis grumbles at the end of a scene after Mac whispers the stage directions to himself. And Dee does the closing Dayman (ahhhh!) choreography without being able to lift her arms above her head, John-McCain-like.
With less of a rush on these episodes, this musical could have been a great deal more elaborate -- maybe even big enough to bear the weight of high expectations. And yet, even though the whole thing comes off a little half-assed, I don't think it matters as much as I had feared. Because there's Charlie, pulling it all together as the almost-competent director bedeviled by unreliable actors. The Nightman and the Dayman are misdirection. All the real action is backstage.
- Emblematic of Charlie's transformation is his rant to Dee after she wants to ditch the baby-banging song. I could watch him asserting his authority all day. "Song ... or no song?!"
- He also makes Frank spit out his gum into his hand, while Dennis pipes up from the background, "He said no gum, it's unprofessional."
- Mac, just after Charlie has explained that the story is not about having sex with a little boy: "We have to be very careful about how we do the rape scene."
- "At a certain point, you have to stop telling the Calvin Coolidge story and get out there and play the piano."