WEDDING SINGER: A Play for the Sentimental Heart – Joyfully Realized

by Terry Stern

This is a play for the sentimental heart. Forgive contrivance, forget the cynic in you. It is pure joy! And Burlington County Footlighters brings it home with clout.

This is the 2006 stage adaptation of the 1998 film. It is romantic comedy for the sheer fun of it. With a few, small changes—e.g. Billy Idol appears in the film as an integral part of the plot. Obviously impractical to have Billy Idol in every production of the show world-wide, there is a funny adaptation solving the problem—the show flows along the same plot line as the film but now dressed in lovely songs which often have lyrics so comically puerile as to be delightfully pleasing.

The style of the film is duplicated, if blended a bit more smoothly, in the stage version. And the stage version gives us belly-bounding production numbers like “Not That Kind of Thing” which kept my companion and me giggling throughout when we weren’t guffawing. In this show, even depression has us laughing. Actually, depression has us particularly chortling and gasping now that I come to think of it.

This is the story of the battle between the romantic and the material worlds. Robbie Hart, the title character, is the perfect romantic schlub, in love with love, happy and friendly and without the moral perversity required to make millions selling junk bonds. Played strongly by Sean Flaherty, when he tries to get into the money game, he looks hilariously awkward and out of place in a tie and jacket which give him the appearance of a present prepared by a drunken gift wrapper at the Goodwill. And Mr. Flaherty’s first-act “Somebody Kill Me” is one of many tickle-ribbed highlights in this soft romp.

Sammy and George are Robbie’s best friends and band mates. Gifted to us in spirited craft by Anthony Magnotta and Connor Twigg, these two are a grand pair of side-kicks. Mr. Magnotta is a sweetheart of a street punk, and Mr. Twigg flames and lights up the stage. Both showed strong voices, strong choices and strong commitments to what they did. And both provided solo and ensemble moments of brightness to this production. I thank them for excellent supporting performances.

It would not be a romance without a female lead, and Robyn Hecht is a grand Julia Sullivan. Evocative of Drew Barrymore’s original, Ms. Hecht has a truly fine performance voice and presence, with excellent comic timing and intent to match. She and Mr. Flaherty cut it up royally in “Not That Kind of Thing” near the end of the first act. With playfully comic banter at once endearing and believable, they reveal their budding love for each other, and it is warmingly funny.

Julia is the erstwhile fiancée of a sexist jerk Glen Guglia (goo-li-ya), played with mean-spirited, jock-headed self-centeredness by Ryan Ketner, who sparkles in his homage to greed, “All About the Green”. But the future, painfully named Julia Guglia’s heart belongs to Robbie.

She discovers this with the help of her best friend and cousin, Holly, given to us in a stand-out performance by Danielle Harley. Ms. Harley’s brassy, slutty Holly is everything the play calls for. From rocking us in “Pop” to touching us with “Right In Front of Your Eyes” Ms. Harley gives us a Holly with flash and grit. Thank you, Ms. Harley. for your performance. It was a pleasure to see you and I hope to see you again.

But I admit that the dark-horse star of the show was Jillian Starr-Renbjor as Rosie, Robbie’s grandmother. As a grandmother, Ms. Starr-Renbjor bears a striking resemblance to one of the Disney fairy godmothers, which is why it stops the show when she busts a rap with Mr. Twigg’s George in “Move That Thang” near the end of the play. As a duo, they are a flat-out riot, dancing with unabashed dedication and, well, shaking those grand “thangs” of theirs. They deservedly got cheers, whistles and applause.

Community theatre requires a great deal of multitasking and inventiveness to cover shortfalls in skills and people to employ them. Sarah Dugan both directed and choreographed the show, which would have been to her credit had she done both merely adequately. But her staging is fluid and clear. Her choreography is energetic and diverse, faint praise were she a dancer. Her training, I believe, is cheer-leading. That’s talent.

This was not a perfect production: My seat house right in the first row was fabulous for everything but the grand production numbers. In the case where the stage floor was full of dancers, my vantage gave me a lot of legs but not the full impact of the group motion. A suggestion I pass on is to thin the dancers: put some of them on the upper level so that there aren’t so many of them dancing together on the main stage floor.

And the one place I was nervous was “Grow Old Together With You” because Mr. Flaherty is not a guitar player. I was distracted from the endearing, childlike tenderness of the song by the unintended clumsiness of the guitar accompaniment. I say give the guitar to someone onstage who plays, or lose it altogether.

But these imperfections do not count for much in the overall. The show is a rollicking celebration of romance over the merely crass and materialistic. If you do not like the engaging joy of well-rendered, pure entertainment, don’t go near Burlington County Footlighters’ stage for another couple of weeks. If, however, you like getting a big entertainment bang for your buck and coming out of a theatre in an excellent mood, this is the place.

I add a personal response to properties like Wedding Singer because I was taken aback while preparing to write this review. I read Ben Brantley’s 2006 New York Times review. Mr. Brantley wrote:

“. . .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. . .”

Mr. Brantley expresses a point of view with which I take exception because it represents the manner in which a whole segment of theatre has ripped itself away from the body of daily life. He is correct that this property gives no new perspective on love or relationships or comedy or music or anything. Why is it supposed to?

The genre of the insouciant entertainment piece is important to theatre which wishes to expand its patron base. Mr. Bentley’s elitist disdain for producing simple, glorious entertainments is a snobbish quibble necessary to feed a system of arts dependent upon patronage. It is a disaster for a system of arts which depends on the general public.

Theatre truly wishing to grow its roots into the community in which it is planted needs to perform these entertainments to bring more people in. This is not Machiavellian or narrowly self-serving. The tasks of art are to instruct and delight. The new audiences are theatre children. Just as you do not teach traffic safety to a 3-year-old by showing her graphic pictures of children mauled by cars, you don’t develop audience sophistication by asking them to see what they can’t enjoy. All we develop with that tactic is dust on our seats.

Start with the popular and move from there. In ten years no theatre company will be afraid of having its patron base packed. There’s plenty of room on the 2022 schedule to scare the cultural pants off them with the cutting edge piece you like better. The thing is, once they become used to it, they will like it better, too.

Book by Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy
Music by Matthew Sklar
Lyrics by Chad Beguelin
Directed by Sarah Dugan
Through February 4, 2012
Burlington County Footlighters
808 Pomona Rd
Cinnaminson, NJ 08077

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