The delightful musical comedy is now playing at the Denver Center

What is bad luck, anyway? Is it simply things turning out the opposite of what you’d like? Is it fate? Is it a series of unfortunate events brought upon ourselves by not thinking more positively?

And do nice guys really always finish last?

In The Other Josh Cohen, recently opened at the Denver Center’s Garner Galleria Theatre, these questions are put to the test in a frenetic and inventive musical comedy that’s emotionally satisfying — and funny as hell.

We open on a tiny, shitty NYC apartment that looks recently vacated. But, in fact, it’s the home of Josh Cohen, who soon learns he’s been robbed of his minimal possessions.

The title character is portrayed by two actors, an approach that yields a number of interesting observations as future Josh comments on the actions of past Josh.

The first Josh Cohen we meet is played by Seth Dhonau, a lean, confident and handsome young man strumming a guitar and acting as narrator. He soon introduces the other Josh Cohen (Brett Ambler) — a schlub if ever there was one: disheveled, 20 pounds overweight and sporting an unfortunate mustache. He’s the guy with a piece of trash stuck to his feet who’s as adept at putting his foot in his mouth as he is at annoying the fuck out of everyone he meets.

Narrator Josh is looking back over the past year to the previous Valentine’s Day, when Schlub Josh hit his nadir. Sitting in the shell of his apartment with only a Neil Diamond CD and the DVD case of a porn video left by the robbers, he’s at a loss as to how to move forward.

But then, something potentially wondrous happens: a windfall in the form of a mysterious check arrives in his mailbox. Yes, it’s addressed to him and yes, the check is made out to him. But no, he doesn’t recognize the name of the sender other than to guess it may be a distant relative from his long and twisted family tree.

It’s a great premise that sets up a moral conundrum about whether he should cash the check. Everyone seems to think he should, but Josh isn’t sure, and he sets out to track down the check writer while the action skips back and forth between past and present.

Seth Dhonau, Brett Ambler. The Other Josh Cohen. DCPA Cabaret. Photo by McLeod9 Creative

Seth Dhonau and Brett Ambler in 'The Other Josh Cohen' | Photo by McLeod9 Creative

Five actors, dozens of characters

Joel Ferrel and DCPA casting whiz Grady Soapes put together an extraordinary ensemble of local actors (or, at least, actors who’ve done a lot of shows in Colorado). Telling the story of Josh Cohen’s no-good very-bad year and unlucky love life requires a lot of characters, and alongside the two Josh’s are Nicole Debree, Valerie Igoe and Aaron Vega.

This script allows for many variations, but I love this take, where a minimal cast does it all. It makes for a high-energy show where the many mini performances are as interesting as the plot itself.

There’s a three-piece band driving the musical numbers, including David Nehls on keys (he’s also the musical director), David DeMichelis on guitar and bass, and Keith Ewer on drums. Nehls and DeMichelis are on stage with the rest of the cast, allowing for occasional interactions, while Ewer is on the other side of the window where the robbers came in.

Two for one

As Narrator Josh, Dhonau hits the right combination of critic and fan of his older self. While he’s clearly in a better place than Schlub Josh, it’s not inconceivable that they’re different iterations of the same person. The actor does nice work playing this affable, self-assured and patient Josh as a sort of coach-seer. He may cringe a lot revisiting all his fuckups, but he’s  possessed with the knowledge that it will, indeed, all turn out in the end.

As Schlub Josh, Ambler has a higher hill to climb to get the audience to like his character. At first, he just wallows in self-pity while decrying his bad fortune. Ambler starts to move the needle as the show goes on, moving from pity to strong relatability of the character: We’ve all been Schlub Josh in varying degrees at one time or another in our lives, and it’s not long before we’re rooting for him.

Ambler has a higher-pitched singing voice than Dhonau, which suits the whiny nature of the character. Together, their harmonizing is remarkably powerful — a melding of type portrayed in voice. It’s a remarkably effective device to have one character portrayed by two actors simultaneously, and Ambler and Dhonau are perfectly cast for the challenge.

Power trio

The other three actors juggle a whole bunch of different roles, and it’s hard to overstate how strong, versatile and funny all of them are. Nicole Debree, who shined in a similar stint at the Aurora Fox production of Hundred Days, plays everything from a sexpot to a grandma and brings a beautiful singing voice to the performance.

Valerie Igoe has a ton of fun as several of Josh’s disgruntled former girlfriends, the one he finally ends up with, and a host of other characters. She’s a gifted comic character actor and also a strong singer who lights up the stage every time she appears. She can do any kind of voice or accent and has the physicality to pull off just about anything Ferrell asked of her.

With his youthful face and silver hair, Aaron Vega is another chameleon who can easily jump from wacky Ukrainian slumlord to snooty Upper East Sider. I found myself looking forward to his appearances, eager to see who he’d become next and newly impressed with this highly versatile actor and singer who lights up stages around Colorado.

The Other Josh Cohen is in for the long haul through May 1 at the DCPA’s cabaret space, Garner Galleria. The bar is still closed but the laid-back atmosphere in the smaller space is ideal for a show like this one. If Omicron doesn’t clip its wings, The Other Josh Cohen is a high-flying musical comedy that plays the heartstrings as well as it does the funny bone.