Theater Review: One Life To Live’s Peter Bartlett in What’s That Smell? The Music of Jacob Sterling

Peter Bartlett

By Marlena De Lacroix

Wednesday night I LMAO and in addition laughed so often I had tears and mascara running down my face. I attended a preview of  What’s That Smell? The Music of Jacob  Sterling, a “comedy with vocal selections” starring David Pittu (Tony nominated for Is He Dead?)  and our own beloved Peter Bartlett (Nigel, One Life to Live).

It’s the life story of the fictional Jacob Sterling (Pittu), a bad, bad, very bad almost-made-it Broadway songwriter and lyricist.  In his awful, awful  oeuvre are the musical-ization of Private Benjamin and a musical version of La Femme Nikita named Madame Death. Pittu sings and accompanies himself on the piano all through the evening, demonstrating the totality of his oevere.   “What’s That Smell?” is the title song of a musical on that finicky sense,  inspired by what Jacob’s mother said when she got off a bus from her native New

Verboten is the phrase, frequently uttered by musical comedy professionals, “Musical comedy is dying.” If only we here in the soap world and on the internet had a similar alarm for … “Soaps are … ”

Jersey at New York’s Port Authority to visit her son. (Randy Redd wrote the music, and Pittu, who wrote the show, wrote the lyrics.)  

The show is a satire on musical comedy, and it is rich, rich with cleverness, and pop culture laughs  (with jokes on everyone from Kaye Ballard to Sarah Palin)  you’ll enjoy no matter how well you know the genre.

Bartlett is Leonard Swagg, the sweetly fawning host of the late night cable show on which Jacob tell his story.  The name of the show is Composer and Lyricists of Tomorrow, acronym CLOT.  Leonard stops the show regularly to parenthetically give obscure factoids about musical comedy, reacting and making oh-so-delicious comments on Jacob’s dismal songs and botched career. In his regular New York stage roles — such shows as The Drowsy Chaperone and Jeffrey plus The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told (humorist Paul Rudnick never writes a show without a role for Bartlett) — he usually plays roles far afield from Nigel on One Life to Live.

But in this play, Leonard for all intents and purposes could be the nighttime alter identity of Nigel. That is if Nigel loves musical theater, and although it’s never been mentioned, I bet he does! Like our Llanview favorite butler was to Asa, cable show host Leonard is to Jacob, a second banana so good his quips and delivery steal the show.  Actually, he and the very funny Pittu are ideally matched here.

Just to watch Bartlett standing off on the side, reacting, making quips and dancing to Jacob’s ridiculous songs is pure joy.  Just like Nigel on OLTL, Leonard is a thoroughly original character and Bartlett always steers clear of being stereotypically over the top.  He’s an fine actor — he knows exactly what he’s doing.  Character actors are a vanishing breed on soap operas.  Bartlett hasn’t survived fifteen years of neing on OLTL for nothing.

The final number is Jacob’s new show — his ersatz, and we mean very ersatz masterpiece.  It’s Shopping Out Loud, a salute to Jacob’s and everyone’s favorite hobby.  Three young performers (Jacob’s singing students, played by Brandon Goodman, Matt Schock and Helene Yorke ) sing individual salutes to our favorites: Pottery Barn, Victoria’s Secret and Eddie Bauer.  Jacob does a teary salute to Banana Republic,  a nation in which where all the cute young men work all day, and come home to delight in wearing fresh new chinos.

Leonard’s show, CLOT, is certainly a merry place, so much fun in fact I didn’t want to leave at the end of the show.   The only time the fun stops is when someone on the show says the forbidden, and then alarms and sirens go off.  Verboten is the phrase, frequently uttered by musical comedy professionals, “Musical comedy is dying.”  If only we here in the soap world and on the internet had a similar alarm for … “Soaps are … ”

BTW, I’ll interview Barlett here soon.  I made the appointment after the show.   He remembered me from interviewing him 13 years ago when he played The Clock in Broadway’s Beauty and the Beast.  “By the way, Marlena,” he said  “Did you see this little storyline we did on the show (OLTL) called 1968?”


What’s That Smell? The Music of Jacob Sterling is presented by the Atlantic Theater Company at Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street, Manhattan. It will play through Sept. 28, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 PM, Saturday matinees at 2 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. All tickets are $35 and available by calling Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (


  1. Oooh! I can’t wait for your Peter Bartlett interview! Nigel is always such a hoot, and really, how can anyone turn the channel when he’s on? WHY would anyone turn the channel when he is on? Marlena, I know he is one of your faves, so I really look forward to the interview! Can you please ask him what it was like for him to work with Phil Carey and what his thoughts are on the Asa/Nigel dynamic? I have never read and interview with PB!

    As loyal to Asa as he was, think Nigel has a mancrush on Jared! LOL!

    Marlena says: Thanks, darling Dale. Of course I am going to ask him about Nigel and Jared….only I originally thought it was more a father-son dynamic…but, perhaps you are right, dear!

  2. Dave Feldman says:

    Any chance the show will be held over? Great review in the Times.

    Marlena says: Marlena waves at Dave, a really great guy she hasn’t seen in years. Thanks for pointing out the review in the Times, which was a rave. When I talk to Mr. Bartlett I will indeed find out if the run has been extended–with notices like that, I’d say it’s likely. After all, I am still laughing at jokes from the show days later as I write this.

  3. Marilyn Henry says:

    Marlena, you’re right–character actors are going out of style and that’s a shame! I hadn’t thought about that, but along with beloved vets and other soap staples, go good character actors. Last night I watched an old movie with Charles Coburn, a character actor so skilled he was often billed right up there with the stars and he carried many a movie. He, like Thelma Ritter, was always a treat.

    I have always enjoyed Nigel, but regret I missed some of his golden moments, such as his teaming up with Roxie. I should NEVER have let myself get so busy I gave up OLTL. It has long had some of the very best actors around. Wish there was some sort of DVD preservation for golden soap moments as they are now doing with old TV shows. There are SO many episodes I’d like to relive on SB, GH, OLTL and AW (the only soaps I ever watched for more than a couple episodes.)

    I really look forward to that interview!

  4. Man. Makes me wish I lived in New York City.

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