AUBURN | The Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival comes full circle with The Pitch.

In contrast to the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse's full-bodied stagings of venerated classics, the new series brings bare-bones renditions of works-in-progress to the also-new Theater Mack at the Cayuga Museum. Every musical is just three performers and a piano — no sets, no costumes and no choreography.

It's not only the opposite of the playhouse in spectacle and renown, but in audience participation, as well. Building on the Auburn Public Theater shows' tendency to pluck someone from the crowd for red-faced on-stage participation, The Pitch actively solicits the audience's advice about the shows it presents, both through post-show Q-and-A's and handwritten feedback surveys. Unlike the playhouse, The Pitch isn't just a show — it's a workshop.

As Producing Artistic Director Ed Sayles introduced the first show of the inaugural night of The Pitch Thursday, "Flambe Dreams," he recalled wanting to stage such a series since he was 12. In his mind, it would resemble James Cagney and his partner pitching their show in "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

"It's wild and wooly. We're combining a cabaret space and a space where shows are presented to a small group of investors," he told the audience of about 80, all huddled around cocktail tables in groups of three to five, an odor of new paint still faint in the air of the heavily gray and black former carriage house.

As Sayles concluded his words, Matthew Hardy, author of the book and lyrics for "Flambe Dreams," stood in the background, meticulously arranging the silverware on a table. Once Sayles left the stage, Hardy, as "Dreams" protagonist Joseph Christiansen, began the show by explaining the character's lifelong goal: To become a maitre d'.

"What he really loved most was setting desserts on fire," Christiansen sang of his father, who died trying to halt a bananas Foster dessert trolley that had inadvertently swelled into an inferno.

The quirkiness was only beginning.

With music composer Randy Klein on piano and actress Jillian Louis filling whatever role was needed, Hardy familiarized the Theater Mack crowd with Christiansen, his pill-pushing mother, his sweetly dorky pharmacist and the rest of "Dreams'" batty crew. Hardy swapped accents several times over, from Manhattan prostitute to French to stoner. In the latter voice, he sang the virtues of dating a blow-up doll to a steady flow of chuckles. Louis took a fantastic turn "chatting" with Hardy online, coaxing kitchen talk from him in a voice that sounds like a valley girl phone sex operator, then launching into another roaring song.

"She doesn't even play that role," Hardy said after the impressive number.

For all the creative craftsmanship, there was informality everywhere. Between songs and scenes, Hardy would frequently push the story along with quick summaries, thus keeping the show within its allotted 40-50 minutes. In one scene with Louis, he verbally signaled that she had made an error. She repeated her line, this time standing. The audience was confused — until Hardy next asked her to sit down.

After concluding with a funny musical love letter to New Jersey, Hardy and Klein took questions about the origins of their show. The audience learned "Flambe Dreams" had been in development for six years and would open in New York City in July, despite meeting only about half of its fundraising goal thus far. (For more information about the show, or to contribute to its production, visit www.flambedreams.com or www.flambedreamsdonations.com.)

After a 15-minute intermission, "The Eulogy" followed in the second slot of the night. Rachel Carrozziere and Annie Lash's more somber work was a little lighter on music than "Dreams," instead budgeting its time toward the dramatic exchanges that accompany Sarah's (Carrozziere) frustrating efforts to memorialize her grandfather. The naked sincerity of the character fit well with the revelation after the show that many parts of Carrozziere's work are autobiographical.

Like Hardy, Carrozziere often fast-forwarded through the show with summaries, explaining how "The Eulogy" would be realized on stage. The audience may not need to use its imagination in a few years, when the night's shows could quite possibly come to the festival's other stages, advancing through this artistic life cycle The Pitch completes.

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at drwilcox.

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Features editor for The Citizen.