'Nerds' rules in a rocking, rollicking send-up

Matt Bradley (left) is Steve Jobs and Benny Elledge is Steve "Woz" Wozniak in "Nerds," at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre.
Matt Bradley (left) is Steve Jobs and Benny Elledge is Steve "Woz" Wozniak in "Nerds," at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre.
Posted: December 06, 2013

THERE'S a new (2.0 edition) musical in town called "Nerds" that techies will relish for its smart, insider's perspective and that pretty much any theater fan should enjoy for its flip attitude (think "Book of Mormon," "Avenue Q" and "Spamalot"), inspired performances, rocking (and even rappin') show tunes and snappy staging.

Just launched by the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, "Nerds" is a ridiculously amusing, mocking and also knowledgeable (ouch!) send-up of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, the oft-warring titans of tech who changed everything with the commercialization of affordable and user-friendly (sometimes) home computers. And never let the world forget it.

Working on the logic that it takes one to know (and spoof) one, the show's book and lyrics are by two self-proclaimed nerds with excellent Silicon Valley credentials. Jordan Allen-Dutton is a Palo Alto, Calif., native and son of a Stanford engineering professor. San Franciscan Erik Weiner first put up a bulletin board (precursor to user forums) on the Web as a barely teenager, "back in the ancient days of dial-up connections," he related recently.

Yes, there's an element of homage in their show - nerds celebrating their own. In one rockin' number, Jobs (played by Matt Bradley) comes off like a studly pop idol. Gates (played by Stanley Bahorek) is celebrated (eventually) for his noble turn to philanthropy. "We've performed excerpts for potential investors in Silicon Valley, including venture capitalists at Sequoia Capital who took an early stake in Apple," said Allen-Dutton. "They're really interested in having this story told."

But die-hard "fan boys" these writers ain't. Being irreverent, skewering sacred cows is also central to their operating system - as longtime fans of Monty Python and veteran writers for "Robot Chicken," a stop-action animated TV show poking holes in pop culture by exposing its dark side. "We're taking the piss out of these guys, but in a loving way," said Weiner. "We try and avoid being mean and petty."

So, midway through his evolution, the Bill Gates character may remind you some of Dr. Evil (Austin Powers' nemesis), stomping on competitors to achieve world domination - and slyly altering the high-tech paradigm so that the big profits come from software programs (dirt cheap to reproduce) rather than the costly hardware it plays on.

Even in scenes from his most nebbishy/hippy idealistic youth, Jobs comes off as a bit of a con artist, a self-ordained savior/visionary who cops his best ideas from rival nerds, starting with Jobs' way-techier partner Steve "Woz" Wozniak (Benny Elledge.) The Jobs character also gets nailed as a total jerk with the women. And you have to laugh - 'cause it's likewise true - when Jobs becomes the shaman, conjuring up "magical" visions just by putting hands on his hardware.

"He was a total narcissist," noted Allen-Dutton. "You can see that in the technology. Apple is so proprietary, obsessed with controlling all the systems. If you buy iTunes music and try to move it to another device, you fail. Apple wants to be the center of your universe, excluding all others."

"Though sometimes being exclusive works against you," added Weiner. "Look at Apple's iOS versus Google's Android, which is open source and taking over the mobile marketplace in a big way."

Work in Progress

You're not tripping on LSD (as Jobs liked to do, in his youth) if you remember "Nerds" first playing in Philly way back in 2007, likewise for the Philadelphia Theatre Company at its prior (Plays and Players) home. "It was a big hit then, and people have kept asking us to bring it back," said PTC's executive producing director, Sara Garonzik.

But as tech evolves (almost constantly), so has the stage depiction. "We've learned to make our revisions in pencil," cracked Allen-Dutton. "Nerds" 2.0 edition sports five new songs (music by Hal Goldberg) - including the priceless "Email to God" - plus lyrical tweaking in every number and a radical change in plot development.

Microsoft still ruled supreme six years ago. Apple was a distant second in the computer operating system world, even with infusions of cash and cooperation by Microsoft - concessions made by the software giant to avoid government charges that Microsoft was functioning as a monopoly.

"Our first version of 'Nerds' was focused primarily on Gates' evolution," said Allen-Dutton. "And Jobs, at the end of our story, was just getting around to introducing the iPod, and pondering, jokingly, that maybe he ought to keep it to himself."

"It was before the iPhone, before the iPad, which Jobs correctly predicted would change everything," added Weiner. "Today, Apple's the biggest tech company on earth, with a market cap larger than Microsoft and even Exxon."

Next Stop

Yes, the "Nerds" creative team has aspirations to bring the show to New York. And truthfully, the PTC production is stylish enough to transfer "as is" to a smaller Broadway house - with its sharp-witted (all Actors' Equity) cast, Lee Savage's flashy circuit-board-themed set, Daniel Brodie's amusing projections and Joshua Bergass' fun choreography. Casey Hushion's direction at times evokes the razzle dazzle of a "How To Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying)," though on a smaller scale. "Ours is a show about underdogs so it should keep that intimate feel," believes Allen-Dutton.

But if their New York producer pals don't act fast, the show might have to be revised again. At the end, Steve Jobs now looks down beatifically from heaven at all the glory he's wrought. "But what's Apple to do next?" pondered Allen-Dutton. "They're trying to find their footing outside Jobs, and what will lead the charge? Will the next revolution be in design, innovation, media? Will they move into even smaller, lighter devices? Steve Jobs shifted the company's focus, but for a large company to shift the way he did again is insane. It would be like G.E. saying, 'We won't make power anymore, we'll make surfboards.' "


Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad Street, Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday at 7 p.m. Thursday-Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. (plus 7 p.m. closing night) through Dec. 29, $51-$79, 215-985-0420, philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.


Blog: philly.com/GizmoGuy

Online: ph.ly/Tech

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