The world is always in need of a new rock musical about a social misfit who just can’t seem to fit into society’s rigid mold. Especially when that social misfit decides New York City is the only place that can handle him, and his only logical choice for a career is to start a rock band. We’re always in need of more stories like that. Wrong Way Up, currently being presented at the Belt Theatre, tries just a little too hard to be Rent, Saturday Night Live, and David Sedaris all pounded to the beat of songs that are catchy enough while sitting in the theatre but fly right out the head when on the street.
The main problem with Wrong Way Up is, in fact, the man who is careening toward a life of crime and failure, the unconcerned Arthur played by Robert Whaley. The first half of the show recalls Arthur’s childhood, but it’s difficult to become to fully immersed in his wayward upbringing, since the man who is retelling it is standing before us a burnt-out loser. Moments of happiness, like when his hardworking mother presents him with a shiny new trumpet to keep him out of trouble or when he discovers the opposite sex in high school, have already lost their luster thanks to the spoiled ending that assures us it doesn’t turn out all that great in the end. There is nothing charming about Arthur, nothing endearing enough for us to want to root for him to discover love and his purpose in life. His enthusiasm is as misplaced as his talent for stealing cars, and most of the time he comes off as creepy rather than honest.
It’s a shame that so much of the show is concentrated on poor Arthur, because the supporting players are really what redeem Wrong Way Up from what could be a frightful mess. Robert Whaley’s real-life partner in the rock band The Niagaras (the two penned the score), Tony Grimaldi, is really who brings the rock n’roll sensibility to the show. Interjecting comments from behind his guitar as Arthur’s smart-mouthed conscience, Grimaldi holds the stage like a true performer, his Greek Chorus providing the much-needed legitimacy and focus to the show. Grimaldi’s vocals are impressive, and his ease onstage secures him as the man we should be watching instead of frantic Arthur.
Jeffrey Dean Wells shines as part one of the two person ensemble, switching disguises and voices with ease and making each character he creates a memorable sketch. This is where the SNL references come in, but for Mr. Wells they are a compliment, since his lightning-fast changes are both hilarious and impressive. He also knocks the crowd down with an unexpected belt of a voice, being allowed to let it loose during his turn as a lisping pimp from Times Square in “His First Days in New York Were Sexy.”
Talk about injustice. Eden Espinosa is garnering raves for her floor-shaking pipes in the Broadway debacle Brooklyn, and yet Rachel S. Stern is confined to only a few moments of likewise vocal power in this show. As the only female cast member onstage, Stern takes advantage of both her serious and sensual characters and her overly satirical ones, all the while shouting out with a voice that soars in both genuine and pop musical styles. What she contributes to “Hearts Beyond Broken” and “War Story, Part 2” is fantastic, and when there are comic chops to match the singing talent, that produces a very special performance indeed.
Wrong Way Up is neither a disaster nor a complete success, but it is certainly an exercise in frustration when it seems like it could easily go in either direction. Robert Whaley is not solely responsible for Arthur’s pity, it is just a fact of the character, the reality that this social misfit doesn’t exhibit the deep passion required for us to like him until the closing number of the show. Until then, we are just watching him float aimlessly through life, halfheartedly dealing with issues such as jobs and family, and only really picking up when his band, The Bad Mirrors, becomes successful. The moment when things pick up with the main character should come a lot sooner than the end of the show.
Wrong Way Up