The 1980s: Wall Street greed; the mullet; Boy George and Culture Club; Mr. Ton TV; and a little moonwalking on the dance floor.
All are a part of "The Wedding Singer," the aggressively eager new musical comedy that attempts to do for New Jersey in the '80s, what "Hairspray" did for Baltimore in the 1960s.
Brought to Broadway by the same producing team that gave us "Hairspray," the show, which opened Thursday at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, is, unfortunately, more relentless than inspired.
All the ingredients, particularly a promising score by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, seem to be in place. So why doesn't "The Wedding Singer" deliver a bigger kick, transporting us to that electric if rarified world of musical theater bliss?
For one thing, the musical seems to be over-enamored of its own concept - obsessively referencing the decade in which it is set when time might better be spent fleshing out the people on stage. If you don't know "Joanie Loves Chiachi" or the jellybean connection to Ronald Reagan, for example, you may feel a little left out of the party.
Based on the popular 1998 Adam Sandler film, "The Wedding Singer," which has a book by Beguelin and Tim Herlihy, traces the hapless adventures of Robbie Hart, who makes a living entertaining at other people's nuptials in suburban New Jersey. His own love life is in the toilet or, more precisely, the Dumpster, after he gets stood up on his own wedding day.
That trash bin, in fact, is the setting for the show's most appealing number, "Come Out of the Dumpster," in which a young waitress, in love with our hero, pleads with Robbie to pick up the pieces and get on with his life. it's funny and sweet, a quiet moment - beautifully sung by Laura Benanti - in a show that too often seems afraid to let its emotions show or its forward motion slow down.
That naked propulsion, pushed by director John Rando, is there from the minute the curtain rises and a wedding celebration is in full swing. Choreographer Rob Ashford has a lot of fun with '80s dance styles and his hardworking chorus seems to be a perpetual-motion machine.
Which brings us to the musical's title character, portrayed by an amiable if not overwhelming Stephen Lynch.
What "Hairspray" had going for it were two outrageously endearing lead characters - a zaftig mother-and-daughter team played by the incomparable Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur. Lynch, despite a pleasant singing voice, doesn't have their oversized stage presence.
More interesting in "The Wedding Singer" are its supporting players, particularly the show's two women of loose morals. Let's face it. Bad girls have more fun - and so does the audience when these ladies are played by the likes of Amy Spanger, a would-be Madonna (only with a sense of humor), and Felicia Finley, as Robbie's crude ex-fiancee.
Spanger is a delight, and she sure can shake up the dance floor, most tellingly in one of Ashford's more inspired creations, done to a tune called "Saturday Night in the City." And Finley gives a hilarious performance of gymnastic proportions as she attempts to reignite a romantic flame with Robbie - on a vibrating bed, no less,
Rita Gardner, as Robbie's terminally hip and horny grandmother, is a pro and knows how to get laughs out of the most obvious, well-worn material. Positive impressions also are made by Kevin Cahoon, channeling Boy George; Matthew Saldivar, as Spanger's blue-collar boyfriend; and Richard H. Blake as Benanti's budding tycoon boyfriend.
Scott Pask's settings are often witty, most tellingly a revolving rooftop restaurant with views of a water tower in beautiful downtown Newark. And Gregory Gale's costumes capture the awfulness of what passed for the height of fashion 25 years ago.
For a simple boy-meets-girl story, "The Wedding Singer" has a convoluted plot, and, it takes Robbie and that waitress a full two acts to finally connect. By then, your affection for the '80s may be exhausted.
When the curtain goes up on the musical version of "The Wedding Singer," the stage rocks with energy,
The large cast - garishly dressed, even though many of them are wearing the most inoffensive of colors, yellow - are wedding guests singing an infectious song called "it's Your Wedding Day." They're dancing jerkily in a witty parody of '80s steps.
For about 10 minutes, you have the feeling it's going to be an evening of fun. Then suddenly the mood quiets down. It never quite reaches that level of excitement again.
What could have gone wrong, you wonder. And then you realize, this is a musical version of a mediocre film how good could it be?
To be fair, the stage version, with book by Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy, lyrics by Beguelin and music by Matthew Sklar, does eliminate a lot of the stupidest material from the movie (like the title character's sleazy brother-in-law).
That, however, isn't enough. Beguelin and Herlihy get a lot of mileage out of period jokes, such as when an arrogant stockbroker advises against buying stock in some Seattle coffee shop that's going public.
But they can't get beyond the mechanical feeling of the film. None of the characters had -or has - any depth or interest.
The plot jerked to and fro in a way that suggested a sequence of writing teams with what they thought were clever ideas. No one was assigned to assure any continuity. The musical eliminates some of the film's many detours, but it can't make a thin idea compelling.
What saved the movie were its two leading actors, Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. The same is true of the show, which has two deeply appealing performers in Stephen Lynch and Laura Benanti.
As Robbie Hart, the singer, Lynch is a gifted comedian (whose own material is funnier than anything he gets here). He has a surprising vulnerability that makes him just right to play a wedding singer who gets stood up at his own wedding. He sings tenderly and dances with gusto.
Benanti is a powerful, winning performer who was dazzling in "Nine" opposite Antonio Banderas. Here the material isn't up to her talent, but she makes the most of it.
Amy Spanger is hot and funny as her slutty girlfriend, Felicia Finley is similarly torrid as the woman who jilts Robbie, and Matthew Saldivar has a goofy charm as his best friend. Rita Gardner is endearing as Robbie's dotty grandmother.
One of the show's greatest assets is Rob Ashford's inventive, comic choreography.
There is a similar wit in Scott Pask's settings, which re-create the glories of suburban New Jersey. The vulgarity of the '80s comes through loud and clear in Gregory Gale's costumes.
Director John Rando keeps the show moving smoothly, but after a while, you get tired of watching a cartoon.
Given that the show will be inexpensive to produce, my heart goes out to the parents of America, who will have to endure high school productions of "The Wedding Singer" for generations to come.
Were you, by any chance, a teenager-plus during the mid-to late '80s? Did you live in New Jersey - better yet, within 10 miles of Ridgefield, N.J.?
If so, then boy, have I got a musical for you! It's called "The Wedding Singer” it's based on that old Adam Sandler movie (set, natch, in Ridgefield), and last night it opened at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre with your name and number written all over it.
As far as everyone else is concerned, imagine "Jersey Boys" being married to "Hairspray," and they now want a divorce - it's that kind of musical. Granted, there will be people out there who will like it, thanks particularly to the frenetically engaging Stephen Lynch -that wittily raunchy singer/comedian from Comedy Central who sings about dead kittens -as its frenetically engaging hero.
A good one-word description for this show would be "crude." Actually, "obvious" is better, for the show is bestrewn with cliches, such as a potty-mouthed granny, a loutish best friend and, natch, all the pitfalls and pratfalls on the true-love way to Boy Gets Girl.
Then there are the New Jersey jokes, the Jewish jokes, the greed-is-good, insider-trading jokes, the time-sensitive visual jokes (a man driving along the highway announces to an incredulous listener that he's using one of those new cellphones, then holds up a device hardly small enough to fit under an airplane seat) . . .well, you get the cartoonish picture.
Sophisticated, it ain't.
Still, the book, based on the '98 movie script - by the original screenwriter, Tim Herlihy, with the show's lyric writer, Chad Beguelin -isn't all that bad.
There's some fun here, including a scene in which the hero doesn't just end up as metaphorical garbage but finds himself in an actual Dumpster, and a few of Beguelin's lyrics are almost surprisingly witty.
But whenever you're prepared to give the show the benefit of a doubt, it comes crashing down, as in the scene set in a Las Vegas wedding chapel, featuring '80s look-alikes of Mr. T, President and Mrs. Reagan and Billy Idol. Billy Idol!
Matthew Sklar's music achieves the peculiar feat of sounding like a jukebox musical without an actual jukebox catalog supporting it. The fancy name for this, I suppose, is pastiche, but the music itself - a couple of numbers are by Sandler and Herlihy from the movie -is hardly fancy.
To its credit, particularly to someone recently ear-drummed by Elton John's "Lestat," there are melodies rather than anthems, and catch-as-catch-canny novelty tunes, which almost, in their generic fashion, pose as memorable.
Luckily, the show, with its time-coded choreography by Rob Ashford, has been staged and cast with rather more sensibility than it has been written.
As he revealed in "Urinetown," the director John Rando has a sure feel for the ironic, used here to good purpose, while the Scott Pask's sets and Gregory Gale's costumes scream "New Jersey!" in neon light.
The show is properly dominated by its hyperactive Lynch-pin, who reflects but doesn't mirror the Sandler style. The rest of the cast, notably the gently contemplative Laura Benanti in the Drew Barrymore role, and Kevin Cahoon as an overly fruity boy in the band (at least for New Jersey 20 years ago), all seem to be having fun.
As did, it's only fair to note, most of the audience.
How quickly our dreary yesterdays become bright, cute and endlessly repackageable. The 1980's, it seems, are to today what the 1950's were to the 1970's (and to part of the 1980's): a supposedly more innocent, picturesquely dopey time when people wore quaint clothes, listened to infectiously inane music and danced goofy tribal dances. Ah, how we laughed.
Hence the return of big hair and shoulders to fashion's runways; the preponderance of Web sites with names like "inthe80s.com"; and animated television scrapbooks, like "I Love the 80's" on VH1, where third-tier celebrities provide snarky commentary about their favorite period bands, movies and celebrities. And now, mining the same much-plundered vein, is "The Wedding Singer," the assembly-kit musical that opened last night at the Al Hirschfeld Theater and might as well be called "That 80's Show."
This transformation of a Hollywood movie into a Broadway musical, a trend that appears as irreversible as global warming, is an example of recycled recycling, or second-hand nostalgia. The film "The Wedding Singer," which became a big hit, thanks largely to its romantic leads, Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, was also set in the mid-1980's, but it was made in the late 1990's. Remember the 1990's? Ah, how we laughed. Would that we could recapture the charm and innocence of how we looked at the 1980's in those days.
In fairness, "The Wedding Singer" — which features songs by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin and a book by Tim Herlihy (who also wrote the screenplay for the movie) and Mr. Beguelin — is hardly a low point in a Broadway season that has given us "Lennon," "In My Life" and "Lestat." True, it consists of little more than winks and nods and quotations. Entire stretches of dialogue are composed of titles of vintage songs, which are imitated as dutifully as copyright law allows in Mr. Sklar's pastiche score. And Rob Ashford's choreography is replete with literal-minded tributes to 1980's music videos for era-defining songs like "Thriller," "Material Girl" and "Flashdance."
But the show has at least a flutter of a hedonist's pulse. And if its formulaic catering to an established public appetite feels cynical, the cast members exude earnestness and good nature. They are a personable enough lot, which is not the same as saying that they have personality.
For, as so often happens when good (or even not-so-good) films turn into stage shows, the first things to be jettisoned are sharp edges and authentically quirky characters. (Decades ago, when Broadway still had a mind of its own, the same process occurred when stage shows were made into Hollywood musicals.) I need utter only three words to make my case: "Saturday Night Fever."
The plot of this "Wedding Singer," directed with bland peppiness by John Rando, sticks closely to that of the movie. The title character, Robbie Hart (played here by Stephen Lynch), is a would-be rock star who makes do by fronting a band that plays wedding receptions in Ridgefield, N.J. He's good at his job because he's in love with love and the notion of happily ever after — that is, until he is left standing at the altar by his skanky fiancée (the enjoyably trashy Felicia Finley). His only hope of salvation lies in the form of Julia Sullivan (Laura Benanti), a sweet, clumsy waitress who unfortunately already has a boyfriend, a Wall Street junk bonds whiz kid (Richard H. Blake).
It's a wispy plot, even by the standards of romantic comedy. What made the movie more or less bearable was Mr. Sandler, a king of low comedy, subduing his frat-house instincts to create a surprisingly gentle portrait of a loser. Plus there was the dewier-than-daybreak Ms. Barrymore, who managed to make even vomit jokes smell like roses. (The vomit jokes, by the way, have been nixed for the stage version. The four-letter words remain.)
Neither Mr. Lynch nor Ms. Benanti, though obviously gifted, shows much original presence here. Mr. Lynch is best known as a performer of self-subverting comic songs that move from conventional prettiness to shock-effect humor. This would seem to make him a natural replacement for Mr. Sandler.
But while Mr. Lynch is charming as Robbie in an angry or depressed mood (he does especially well by the two oddball songs retained from the movie, written by Mr. Sandler with Mr. Herlihy), he is more often called upon to be appealingly boyish, bringing to mind a less vain, less glib Ryan Seacrest. Ms. Benanti, a dark-haired enchantress in the revival of "Into the Woods," goes Barrymore blond for "The Wedding Singer" and winds up looking like that sharp-featured beacon of on-screen efficiency, Helen Hunt. This Julia has a shrewd, calculating look that makes her less than convincing as a starry-eyed klutz.
On the other hand, characterization is clearly secondary in "The Wedding Singer," which is why a supporting cast stocked with sui generis talents tends to turn into a pasteboard parade. That includes Amy Spanger (a standout in the revival of "Kiss Me, Kate") as Julia's cousin, a Madonna wannabe ; Kevin Cahoon (the Childcatcher in "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang") as a member of Robbie's band and a Boy George wannabe; and Rita Gardner (the — gasp! — original Girl in "The Fantasticks") as a sweet little old grandmother who raps, break-dances and talks dirty.
Despite these performers' game efforts, most of their characters feel only a hair's breadth away from the posse of celebrity impersonators (dressed up as Billy Idol, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner, Ronald Reagan and Imelda Marcos, among others) who are rounded up for the show's climax in a Las Vegas wedding chapel. Only the excellent Matthew Saldivar, as Robbie's best friend (a Van Halen wannabe), registers as a bona fide character, authentically defined by his time and place.
That place, of course, is Ridgefield, which has been reconstructed with affectionate cartoon tackiness in Scott Pask's sets. (Gregory Gale's even tackier costumes should by rights single-handedly put a stop to an 80's revival in fashion.) "The Wedding Singer" makes no bones about appealing directly to nearby out-of-towners. "New York is reserved for the rich and proud,/ But here comes the bridge and tunnel crowd," sings the ensemble in a number set in a Manhattan disco.
But Jerseyphilia must take a back seat to the show's broader raison d'être: to create a singing, dancing version of "Trivial Pursuit: 80's Edition." This ambition filters through sight gags (Julia's fiancé totes a cellphone with an oversized battery and drives a DeLorean with a license plate that says "XMAS BONUS") and little-did-we-know jokes about subjects like Starbucks and the New Coke.
It says everything about this musical's priorities that it brings down its first-act curtain not on a suspenseful or emotional moment between Robbie and Julia but on the image of a scantily dressed woman in profile in a chair (Ms. Spanger) being doused with a bucket of water. If that image doesn't make you think "What a feeling!," then "The Wedding Singer" is probably not your show.
Remember the hit single that featured the line "Money for nothing and chicks for free"?
How about the TV commercial that asked, "Where's the beef?" And if you were stuck in some B-celebrity wax museum, could you identify Billy Idol, Mr. T and Imelda Marcos?
If you answered no to one or more of the preceding questions, don't bother reading the rest of this review. Because The Wedding Singer (* * ½ out of four), the new musical adaptation of the film, trades on 1980s nostalgia with a ferocity that would put a VH1 marketing executive to shame.
Singer, which opened Thursday at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, belongs to a modern sub-genre of musical comedy that includes other film-based shows, from the ridiculous Urban Cowboy to the almost-sublime Spamalot, in addition to that mother of all jukebox joints, Mamma Mia! Such efforts share a feel-good quotient that lies not only in their blithe superficiality, but also in the way they make us feel clever for merely recognizing the familiar.
In fairness, Singer has more heart and a better sense of humor about itself than some of its similarly wacky, winking peers. That self-effacing quality helps rescue its libretto, by Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy, from too many references to banal celebrities and bad sitcoms.
Singer also has a winning young cast. I’ll admit that the schizoid-goofball appeal of Adam Sandler, who played the title role in the movie, has always been lost on me. Standup comedian/musician Stephen Lynch brings a more life-sized humanity to the role of lovelorn crooner Robbie, as well as a throaty belt that may remind you, fittingly enough, of Jon Bon Jovi.
As Robbie's love interest, Julia, Laura Benanti fills screen star Drew Barrymore's shoes with her own girl-next-door charm. The period-inspired pop tunes provided by composer Matthew Sklar aren't ideal showcases for Benanti's gleaming soprano, but her playful sweetness is a constant delight.
Amy Spanger and Felicia Finley amuse respectively as Julia's flirtatious cousin and Robbie's really flirtatious ex, who is featured in several sequences as a classic early-MTV vamp, complete with a wind machine: Rita Gardner lends equally game support in the stock role of hipster grandma.
Costumer Gregory Gale and hair designer David Brian Brown contribute some of the tackiest 'dos and don'ts I've seen since my sweet 16 party.
I actually attended The Wedding Singer with an old high school friend, which is the ideal way to see it - provided you went to high school in the '80s.
If you weren't around back then, I suppose you could use your imagination. That was once, I seem to recall, part of the point of seeing a show.
Having scored with its first Broadway venture, New Line doesn't stray far from the "Hairspray" formula with its second stage outing, "The Wedding Singer." Substitute the high-tack 1980s for the swinging '60s, swap Ridgefield, N.J., for Baltimore, copycat the candy-colored design and peppy score and, presto, another instant crowd-pleaser is born. But no matter how slickly realized it is, imitation comes with limitations. Like a knockoff Prada bag picked up on Canal Street, this looks at first glance like the real thing, but closer inspection reveals the imperfections.
Not that its synthetic quality proves fatal to "The Wedding Singer," by any means. Forced as it is, this is a fizzy confection offering enough easy enjoyment to attract the outer boroughs and the tourist trade.
It's also derivative by design, to some extent making a virtue of its inherent phoniness via winking acknowledgement. Where the 1998 film ended with a scene featuring '80s icon Billy Idol, the stage adaptation corrals not only an Idol impersonator but a fake Tina Turner, Imelda Marcos, Cyndi Lauper, Mr. T and Ronald Reagan. Retro overkill is a distinct risk here, but one mainstream auds are unlikely to mind.
The pic was released ahead of the wave of 1980s nostalgia, but VH1 and other outlets have since locked pop culture into permanent recycle mode.
The musical's chief means of getting laughs is its tireless resurrection of cheesy '80s fashion trends and pop staples -- lace bustiers and fingerless gloves, parachute pants, aerobics, moonwalking, Flock of Seagulls-style sculpted mullets, fringed boots, big-haired metal skanks.
Scott Pask's sets, Gregory Gale's costumes, Brian MacDevitt's lighting and David Brian Brown's grotesque hair designs all work overtime to re-create and caricature the decade's most vulgar excesses.
But unlike "Hairspray," in which the quirky period evocation was a backdrop for fully developed comic situations and characters with real heart, "Wedding" has too little going on beneath the time-warp gags. It's also hampered by a central imbalance in its cast.
What made the movie such a silly, sweet-souled affair was the nerdy guilelessness of stars Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. As title character Robbie Hart, a New Jersey wedding performer left at the altar, comedian Stephen Lynch is an appealing recruit for musical theater. Even if he doesn't have Sandler's vulnerability in the role, he handles both singing and acting duties with breezy confidence.
As cater-waitress Julia Sullivan, engaged to a philandering Wall Street yuppie but increasingly drawn to wounded Robbie, Laura Benanti is a less satisfying fit. As she showed in "Nine" and "Into the Woods," Benanti's vocals have a lovely, relaxed quality. But she's somewhat sober and charm-deficient here; she lacks Barrymore's golden glow, the open-hearted tenderness that made the character so irresistible. She's also saddled with a harsh wig that makes her look like everyone's big sister.
The chemistry between Lynch and Benanti never quite clicks. To a degree, they are also out of alignment with the more cartoonish characters surrounding and constantly upstaging them. The leads seem vanilla by comparison.
Director John Rando, who showed his affinity for non-naturalistic performance style in "Urinetown," has a better handle on the supporting ranks. The terrific Amy Spanger goes beyond her early-Madonna look to shape a winning character out of Julia's amiably slutty cousin Holly, reluctant to admit the lunkhead in front of her might be Mr. Right. Likewise Matthew Saldivar as her fashion-victim soulmate, Sammy. It's a telling miscalculation that we care more about Holly and Sammy getting together than about Robbie and Julia.
As George, the gay keyboard player in Robbie's band Simply Wed, Kevin Cahoon is given too little to do. As is often the case with this show, book writers Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy (latter scripted the movie) rely on pop-culture references to do the work, thinking it's funny enough to stick Cahoon out there in his Boy George hairdo or his Adam Ant post-punk military regalia. To Cahoon's credit, he registers as an idiosyncratic comic presence, amusingly paired with Rita Gardner as the inevitable rapping granny in "Move That Thang."
Richard H. Blake shows off some nimble dance moves in lively second-act opener "All About the Green," the gray business suits offering a break from the loud color elsewhere. The song also is one of the few moments in which the writers glance past the fads into the broader fabric of the greed-driven 1980s.
Standout of the supporting cast is Felicia Finley, who embodies the scariest manifestations of '80s femininity in two riotous numbers as Robbie's fickle fiancee, Linda. Outfitted like Lita Ford and backed by wind effects straight out of a Jim Steinman video, Finley delivers a headbanging breakup missive in "A Note From Linda" and executes some dangerous-looking sexual acrobatics in "Let Me Come Home."
While the show's first half perhaps has one relentlessly upbeat number too many, the songs are a tuneful mix of dance beats and gentle ballads, the most effective of these being Robbie and Julia's "If I Told You." Composer Matthew Sklar and orchestrator Irwin Fisch have dipped liberally into the sounds of the era, borrowing riffs from Van Halen, Wham and Spandau Ballet, among others, while Rob Ashford's bouncy choreography references signature moves from "Thriller," "Flashdance" and "Material Girl."
The best song is the effusive opening (and closing) number, "It's Your Wedding Day." Had the show sustained that initial high note, focusing more on the romantic comedy and less on the "I Love the '80s" pop-culture collage, it might have been a more rounded entertainment.