REVIEW: The Wedding Singer

Youth Performing Arts School presents
Based on the New Line Cinema film written by TIM HERLIHY
Reviewed by Cory Vaughn

Entire contents are copyright © 2011 Cory Vaughn. All rights reserved.

(Ed. note:  This show must be great - we have had two reviews submitted independently -- see Alonzo Richmond's "blurb" for his point of view!)

DuPont Manual High School’s musical theatre program, along with those of Floyd Central and New Albany High Schools, is one of the main reasons I was inspired fairly early in my life to pursue theatre. All three programs made a huge impression on me during countless elementary and middle school field trips to student matinees. Although I think I’ve done pretty well by myself in my relatively young career, I sometimes regret not attending any of these schools. These young performers are off to a giant head start. I am not allowed to review productions at Floyd Central, where my sister Angela is choral director and musical director for their theatre productions, or at New Albany, where I am an occasional substitute teacher, but for the first time Friday night, I had the pleasure of reviewing a production of Manual’s Youth Performing Arts School.
Let me say first of all that The Wedding Singer, which they have chosen to open their 35th season, is not a great piece of musical theatre (and given the source material, how could it possibly be?), and it seems an odd choice for the school whose acclaimed theatre program gave us the first local productions of Les Miserables and Jason Robert Brown’s Thirteen, but it is a good showcase piece for the talents of director Georgette Kleier and her students, who have given it 150% and put on an occasionally funny, often cute, sometimes lagging, and consistently entertaining and high-energy production of an average show. I know instinctively that these students are working their butts off and being graded on it, and yet, it doesn’t show. They genuinely seem to be having a great time, and it’s their commitment and spunk that makes the show better than it probably should be.

Unless you spent the 1990s living under a rock, you undoubtedly know that The Wedding Singer, like far too many musicals on Broadway these days, is based on a movie, and that that movie starred Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. Sandler was title character Robbie Hart, a failed rock singer whose sole livelihood comes from singing at wedding receptions, all of which seem to take place at the same multi-purpose banquet hall in a kinder-gentler New Jersey circa a 1985 that, for all I know, never really existed except as a garrulous parody of itself. When Robbie’s own wedding goes down in flames (his bitchy fiancĂ©e leaves the poor schmuck stranded at the altar via a particularly charming Dear John letter), he loses his mojo, and very nearly his mind. But gradually he is coaxed out of the (at one point literal) dumps by his burgeoning friendship with sweet young caterer Julia (Barrymore) who waitresses at the same weddings where he sings, and who is engaged to a womanizing corporate shark for whom terms like “douche bag” and “yuppie scum” are too flattering. You can pretty much see where this is going.

If you’ve read some of my previous reviews, you know that I am not a fan of the way today’s generation of Broadway producers seem determined to put every movie ever made onstage and make them sing and dance for a quick buck, but I suppose I’ve learned by now to live with it, and as long as this thoroughly derivative method of theatremaking contributes a few enjoyable songs and characters worth spending two hours with, then why the heck not?

The book, adapted from Tim Herlihy’s screenplay by Herlihy and lyricist Chad Beguelin, does a nice job of smoothing out some of the rough edges of the characters. Robbie is much more sympathetic, sweeter, less cloying, more of an everyman, and less of a nebbish. The show requires immensely appealing leads to carry its predictable plot, and with seniors Sean Sullivan and Bailey Rose at the helm, we’re in capable hands. They’re adorable together, and they are backed up by a constantly moving chorus and supporting actors who manage to be engaging and funny despite their one-note (or in the case of Tyler Johnson-Campion as flamboyant backup singer George, one-joke) characters and total lack of any decent songs to sing. Kendrick Thielmeier at least has some zippy one-liners as Julia’s much-more-promiscuous cousin and confidante; she also gets the lion’s share of Gail Benedict’s choreography, including a well-played Flashdance homage against the neon backdrop of Lamont Cowden’s ubiquitous star-drop, here lit up in bright purples and greens. The vibrant 80s color palette also inspires some pretty wacky costume and wig designs by Amy Berry.

The tone for the evening was set immediately, with Manual principal Larry Wooldridge taking the stage in his absurd mullet wig to declare that opening night (November 11, 2011) as “Heavy Metal Day,” and stage manager Max Abner reading a particularly witty and snarky variation on the obligatory cell-phone warning. Wooldridge was not the only faculty member to join in the onstage fun; Manual and YPAS students will recognize assistant principals Daryl Farmer and Greg Kuhn and teachers Katie Blackerby, Nichole Finley, Alexis Rich and Jason Seber in gag cameos toward the end. Now if only several of them, most notably Kuhn, were not victimized by defective body mics. But then, even the leads at times sounded overwhelmed by the seventeen-piece pit band; they sound great, but they could stand to lower the volume by a couple decibels.

The Wedding Singer’s somewhat lackluster 80’s-pastiche score, by lyricist Beguelin and composer Matthew Sklar, produces little hit parade material, which is ironic, considering the mid-80s soundtrack was the best thing about the film! Unlike many of my peers, however, I base my judgment of a musical theatre score not on whether I leave humming the tunes, but whether I want to hear them again. I can recall at least four original songs that fell pleasantly enough on my ear to warrant a second listen, and in the age of Mamma Mia! and countless other utterly unimaginative jukebox shows, four ain’t bad. The first two songs, Robbie’s “It’s Your Wedding Day” and Julia’s wistful “Someday,” are so infectious, so giddy, that it’s a little disappointing how nothing that follows really comes close. True, “Not That Kind of Thing” has a great and memorable hook, and there is also a sweet Act Two duet for our two leads entitled “If I Told You”, but those who lived through the 1980s will without question recognize in those songs the influence of Van Halen’s “Jump” and Journey’s “Faithfully,” respectively. Homage or outright plagiarism? You decide, but I can’t deny I enjoyed listening to them the first, and second, and third time. And of course there are two Sandler-penned holdovers from the movie, but they were slight then and slighter now.

I say it again, it is the surprisingly professional performances of the teenage stars that make this show worthwhile. In particular, I could not be prouder to see young Sean Sullivan, who has frequently danced in the choruses of shows I have done at CenterStage, so totally nail his long-overdue star turn as Robbie, and if he achieves his goal of studying music education at Eastern Kentucky University (noted in his bio), I hope he inspires his future students to perform with the same joy and gusto that has always served him so well.

Reviewing YPAS shows is always tricky, because they are usually double-cast, and that is the case here. My review is based on the cast I was able to see, and that doesn’t seem fair to those equally hard-working students who alternate in the principal roles. Perhaps, when I return to Louisville from California this weekend, I shall have to become the first critic in town to review the same show twice. Till then, both casts will be listed in the credits at the end of this article.

For you in the general public, the coming Friday and Saturday evenings are your last chance to catch The Wedding Singer, but it is my understanding that several student matinees are also planned. For you teachers and administrators concerned about the language in the movie, fear not: Kleier and company have cleaned it up nicely, and perhaps like me, one of your students will find inspiration in the accomplishments of YPAS’s performing arts.

The Wedding Singer
Youth Performing Arts School
1517 South Second Street
Louisville KY 40208
Website: www.ypas.org

Remaining Public Performances: November 18 and 19, 7:30pm

General Admission: $12.00
Students (with ID): $9.00

Taylor Dant takes over the role of Robbie Hart for this weekend.

November 18th will feature Bailey Rose (Julia), Jordan Adams (Sammy), Kendrick Thielmeier (Holly), Tyler Johnson-Campion (George), Grace Theobald (Rosie), Alex Kapp (Glenn), and Ashleed Soldo (Linda)

November 19th will feature Rachel Hafell (Julia), Jordan Adams (Sammy), Kathleen Niemann (Holly), David Watkins (George), Courtney Doyle (Rosie), Tayler Lynch (Glenn), and Audrey Adams (Linda)

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