Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
When "Hairspray" had its out of town opening in Seattle there was enormous excitement. That show felt like a hit from the very start, and when it went on to smash success in New York, there was a certain proprietary pride here. Now the same producers are betting a similar amount (around ten million dollars) that "The Wedding Singer" can be the next big, glossy, vastly commercial success.
It may be. It certainly has many similar elements. It's light and accessible, plays to the nostalgia of an important demographic, has great energy in many of its musical numbers, trades on a hit movie source, and is structured on the most familiar of romantic plots. But at least in its current form, it also has some very big differences, and they make this gamble feel much dicier. As much as I enjoyed many elements of this boisterous and likeable show, I don't think I'd want to have my own money riding on it.
For starters, it needs cutting. Easily three or four songs could be eliminated, and other numbers that are successful could be trimmed back. A bigger problem though, is the casting. Laura Benanti has a gorgeous singing voice, but the show doesn't quite allow her Julia to come out as the very special girl hidden in a humdrum existence. An even bigger problem is Stephen Lynch as the wedding singer, Robbie. While Mr. Lynch is pleasant and agreeable, with a perfectly adequate voice, he never commands the stage, never really becomes the lead. There's also precious little chemistry between the two, and the romance feels as forced and mechanical as much of 1980's dance music. Director John Rando moves the action, but he never really forces us close to the individuals, nor does he make them sympathetic and distinctive.
Accenting the inadequacy of the leads is the strength and conviction of several supporting characters. Richard H. Blake makes the scoundrel, Glen, a far more vivid and compelling character than Robbie. Felicia Finley blows down the walls as former girlfriend, Linda, and lifts the show to another level with her sizzling "Let Me Come Home". Rita Gardner works the "can't miss" role of the randy old grandma, Rosie, and her delivery of the clever "Eight Men" is a highlight of the first act. Even the other two members of the wedding band, Kevin Cahoon and Matthew Saldivar, are more interesting and dimensional than our unlikely romantic hero.
Beyond that critical weakness in the central relationship, I think the material itself is problematic. In the first act, both Robbie and Julia are leading lives of dead-end compromise and emotional ennui. That's tolerable when the camera gives us rapidly changing images and revealing close-ups, but on stage it leaves a sizable void in the drama, a boring and dramatically slack kind of stasis. The authors try to overcome that with numbers that play off the style and energy of the period, but for all the energy and insistent effort wrapped in all manner of glitzy trappings, it's still a distraction. If we don't care about Robbie and Julia, we don't care where or when the story is taking place.
Another problem. The period detail: all the clothes and the music and politics and pop culture references and greed mentality is amusing, but is it appealing? I'm not sure. Jokes about early cell phones with their ten pound battery packs may work, but an Imelda Marcos impersonator and calls on Erik Estrada may not. The second act opener, "All About the Green" is terrific, as is all of Rob Ashford's choreography, but by the time we get to "Grow Old With You" (borrowed from the film) we really understand this is little more than the grinding machinery of a happy ending. My sense was that this show makes the mid-eighties look like a pretty energetic and fun time, but there wasn't much to make me want to relate to, let alone be, either of these two people.
Everything about the physical production is first-rate, from the amazing and beautifully realized scenic design by Scott Pask to Gregory Gale's fun and evocative costumes to Brian Macdevitt's excellent lighting and Peter Hylenski's sound design. The big money behind this production shows on stage. Just not enough of the big heart it also needs.
By this time next year, "The Wedding Singer" may be collecting Tony's by the armful, and be sold-out into the arrival of the next "eighties". But I don't think so. Not based on what I saw in Seattle. "Hairspray" had a real heart beneath all the kitsch and trivial fun. "The Wedding Singer" feels more like an artificial sentiment being crooned for a paid gig.