The Wedding Singer, book by Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy, based on the 1998 film script by Tim Herlihy. Lyrics by Chad Beguelin. Music by Mathew Sklar ("Grow Old With You," and "Somebody Kill Me" - music and lyrics by Adam Sandler and Tim Herlihy). Directed and choreographed by Ann Cooley. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"A case for hesitation. . ."
Joanna Russell and Jared Sigler; photo: Allen Phelps
Every season, especially one as good as this one, has to have a down-side. "The Wedding Singer" which is now playing at The Theater Barn in New Lebanon, NY is this season's prime candidate for the boo-hiss award. It isn't the players, however; they are all doing remarkably good work. It isn't the designers who have turned in a great show to look at. It is the material itself which is so bad, yet somehow the show ran for 284 performances on Broadway in 2006, helped to establish Laura Benanti as an up-and-coming star and received 5 TONY nominations. It must have been a meagre season; that's all I can figure out, although the show has had many foreign productions including a company in the Phillipines and another in Germany.
The TONY that year went to "Jersey Boys" over this show, "The Color Purple," and "The Drowsy Chaperone." Best Book and Best Score awards went to the "drowsy" Canadian import. Even so, this musical has the cachet of a hit behind it. The critics, by the way, didn't much care for it at the time and this critic can only echo their sentiments. There isn't one great song in the score and none of them, for me, even were memorable enough to hum or sing on the way home. And, by the way, I haven't heard anyone clamor for the next Sklar/Beguelin show.
Often in the realm of the heavily mediocre it is the talents that are employed to put such a piece on its feet that make the show worth doing, worth seeing. The overly talented John Rando directed the original show. Laura Benanti was the female lead, a cater waitress engaged, or hopefully engaged, to the wrong man. Stephen Lynch was the wedding singer, the hero with nothing heroic about him whose final act takes the courage of a third-rate screenplay character to fulfill: a cliche coming true as Oscar Hammerstein II wrote in a great, great musical, "South Pacific."
What you will find on the postage stamp stage in the Theater Barn's wonderfully air-conditioned theater is a cast of beautiful young people, and a few beautiful older ones, working like demons on crack to make you like this sad piece of musical tripe. A cast of twenty, some playing multiple roles, take on the valiant task of entertaining their audiences with some truly inferior material. There really isn't a pleasant or worthwhile character, with the possible exception of Julia Sullivan, the cater-waitress, played here quite nicely by Joanna Russell. Julia is a victim of circumstances who will not allow Robbie Hart, the Wedding Singer, to lose himself in a garbage dumpster just because he cannot deal with the emotional loss of his fiance on their wedding day. She pleads with him in song "Come Out of The Dumpster," and the vague humor in this piece is underscored by Jared Sigler, playing Robbie, making several attempts to do so, but finding himself perpetually unable to comply with her plea. I was quite stunned at the audience silence that accompanied this moment in the first act. I did think it was funny, but I seemed to be alone in the theater.
Russell and Sigler are nicely balanced in this show. Robbie envisions himself a rock star but he only plays local gigs for weddings, bar mitzvahs and so on with his tiny, meagre band. Joanna sees herself married, settled down in a nice house with a nice man. Robbie is a nice man and she finds herself disastrously attracted to him, coming to him at his worst, lowest moments and finding it impossible to hearten him. At the start of the show he is about to marry and she is fighting a difficult battle getting her successful Wall Street Broker boyfriend to commit. When things change for them both they stay pretty much the same, still who they are, still attracted to each other but unable to approach that reality. After a while it becomes very hard to root for them, even though they are the most likeable people in the show. Russell and Sigler are both very engaging performers, with good voices and definite stage presence. It is the characters' mopiness and general malaise that keeps us from liking them.
The irrepressible Meg Dooley plays Robbie's aging grandmother who loves the birds and the bees and mixing it up with them. In spite of her randiness she is the easiest character to like. In the second act she duets with Joey Alan playing band-member George, an androgynous sort of man who enjoys being a . . . girl? being a man . . .being a girl? (Oscar Hammerstein II again - "Flower Drum Song" - a really great, great show with characters who are hard to like, but you do.)
Robbie's ex-fiancee Linda, is played with an exquisite crassness by Kelley Barker. Linda is about the coarsest woman with a major role imaginable and Barker plays her as down and dirty as possible. As her male counterpart, Glen Guglia - fiance of Julia who, if she married him, would be known as Julia Guglia - is Ricky Gee who plays the meanness in the man even harder than he plays the hardness of the character. Gee does cold-minded greed wonderfully well.
The third, though lesser, villain of the piece is Holly, Julia's cousin, who tries to woo Robbie's interest her way in spite of knowing that Julia is attracted to him. By the way, this play is set in central New Jersey, not a nice place as you might have gathered in this odd election year, for it is Chris Christie territory. New Jersey almost becomes its own character; it certainly helps define these people.
It seems highly appropriate that the penultimate scenes are set in Las Vegas where an elopement takes place, one thwarted by a group of Celebrity Look-Alikes played perfectly by the ensemble, a wonderful group of performers who dance beautifully, sing divinely and play the oddballs in this stage world. The only true celebrity shows up in Act One when Allen E. Phelps appears as Elton John in a remarkably good impression of the singer. However, in Vegas we come across Tina Turner, Ronald Reagan, Imelda Marcos, Billy Idol and Mr. T. That they all return to New Jersey with the principals seems weirdly right somehow.
The wonderful Amy Fiebke plays several roles and is also responsible for the wigs in the show, wigs that help create the oddball characters in this strange piece. The costumes designed by Alison Gensmer are trash fun for the most part and well conceived for these characters. Allen E. Phelps does wonderful things with his lighting design and Abe Phelps' sets are overwhelming but work perfectly. There were sound problems when I saw the show. I can believe that this is a difficult show for one sound-man to run. No one is credited in the program.
This, as I said earlier, is the low point of the season for me, not for the talent in it but the talent behind it. Ann Cooley's choregraphy is sometimes magical and that helps, but her direction cannot solve the basic problem of the show, and that is the show itself. I think that everything she could have done has been done. It's just impossible to turn a turnip into a sweet potato. But thanks, everyone, for trying.
Meg Dooley and Joey Alan; photo: provided
The Wedding Singer plays at The Theater Barn, 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY through September 4. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-794-8989 or go on line at www.theaterbarn.com.