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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

It Shoulda Been You
Tyne Daly Heads Top Notch Cast in New Musical-Comedy

It Shoulda Been You
Lisa Howard, Edward Hibbert, Jessica Hershberg and Matthew Hydzik
With his 2011-2012 season opening production It Shoulda Been You, George Street artistic director David Saint is bringing an "all-star" musical-comedy experience to an unequivocally delighted audience. At the first Tuesday night performance after its official opening, this world premiere musical was greeted with unrestrained laughter and spontaneous applause throughout its two hour running time. Ticket sales are through the roof. During the standing ovation at the conclusion of the performance, the woman behind me turned to her husband (don't ask me how I know that it was her husband, sometimes you just know these things) and rhetorically asked him, "How come this show isn't on Broadway?"

Throughout the first act, I found myself wondering what it was that could have led the multiple award winning New York producer Daryl Roth, Broadway and West End producer Scott Landis, and television producer Michael Hanel to produce this very dated, anything for a laugh, musical situation comedy. Rarely does any character act or speak like a recognizable human being, display any intelligence or respond to events with any consistency. However, the first act curtain brings a revelation which puts an up to date twist on the story. It is clearly this revelation that is responsible for the assembly of high-powered producing, performing, and staging talent for this production. However, because the writers have developed their story in so breathless and cartoonish a manner, and our social mores so swiftly evolved, even this societally relevant, sweetly endorsed twist comes across as dated.

It Shoulda Been You is set in and around the bridal suite of a fancy midtown Manhattan hotel on the wedding night of Rebecca Steinberg (Jessica Hershberg) and Brian Howard (Matthew Hydzik). Rebecca is getting cold feet. Brian is learning Yiddish words by reading a pocket dictionary ("He speaks Yiddish like he learned it from a nun"). Rebecca's sister Jenny (Lisa Howard) continues to dedicatedly labor to keep everything on track despite being repeatedly assaulted in a barrage of one-liners about her weight and single status by their mother ("If you listened to me and skipped a few meals, it would be you marrying today and not your younger sister"). One complication is the uninvited presence of Marty Kaufman (David Josefsberg), Rebecca's boyfriend since childhood, who is determined to win Rebecca back (or so it seems). After all, Marty monkeyed with a computer and changed her math test score, enabling her to get into Yale. Still, from the first moment that Jenny and Marty encounter one another, it is obvious that they are going to wind up together. "Rabbi Schwartz and Father O'Shannon are finally talking." Although they do get into a fight over who will finish the wine.

Judy Steinberg (Tyne Daly), Rebecca's domineering bitch of a Jewish mother, and Murray Steinberg (Richard Kline), her gentler father, both object to their daughter marrying a Catholic, and encourage Marty's efforts to break up the wedding. Remarkably, Brian's parents are even worse. His alcoholic mother Georgette (Harriet Harris) manages to get off a thinly veiled anti-Semitic insult in every sentence that she speaks. She reveals that she was so anxious to keep her son for herself that she tried to turn him gay so he would never marry ("I took him to everything Sondheim"). His father George (Howard McGillin) forces Brian to get Rebecca to sign a "pre-nup" in order to cause a wedding-cancelling rift between them.

Rebecca has an Uncle Morty (Tom Deckman) and an Aunt Sheila (Mylinda Hull) wandering around. They speak in some sort of dated New York style Jewish accents that are supposed to be funny. Uncle Morty is played by a very young actor in a grayish wig who is bent over and shuffles. Maybe Uncle Morty should have been played by Shlep'n Fressit. The actors playing these roles also play two wedding attendants who are largely straight men for Albert (Edward Hibbert), the wedding planner. Yes, you've guessed it. So as not to miss a tired and boring cliché, prominently featured is the gay wedding planner. If there is a joke or gesture here that you haven't seen before, or, if you find any aspect of him not pure caricature, I would be quite surprised. This isn't gay camp, it's gay summer camp.

SPOILER REVEALED. I can go no further without revealing the surprise twist. So if you plan to see It Shoulda Been You and want to discover the twist for yourself, read no further. The description of the play in the advertising materials does not reveal the twist on which the entire evening pivots. It indicates that the evening's contretemps revolve around: "The bride is Jewish. The groom is Catholic". This is not the case. After the wedding ceremony, Jenny enters the bridal suite, and discovers Rebecca passionately kissing her bridesmaid Annie Sheps (Carla Duren), and Brian so kissing his best man Greg Holmes (Curtis Holbrook). End of act one.

Most of act two consists of the others learning that Rebecca and Brian are gay and responding in comedic, but generally warmly accepting ways. Although the writing here lacks verisimilitude, it is certainly preferable to the over the top comedic nastiness on display in act one. Georgette, Brian's mother, is farcically overjoyed that her efforts to turn her son gay were successful. Why the wedding? Well, you see, Brian can only collect the trust fund which his grandfather left him by being married (Could it have been to a man? I'm just asking as I'm really not clear on this point). Oh!—and Rebecca is pregnant with Brian's baby ("we made a mistake"). It's okay that Rebecca's parents are on the hook for an expensive Manhattan wedding and the trauma of the experience because Brian will pay them back when he gets his trust fund. There will be one more wedding tonight. Marty has always known Rebecca's secret longings, although no one else has had the slightest suspicion. He has only been a friend to Rebecca, helping her to hide her true sexuality and navigate through her perils. Marty's true, now requited love is Jenny. Their wedding is followed by the betrothals of Rebecca and Annie, and Brian and Greg.

Although director David Hyde Pierce has certainly not sought subtlety from his cast, his anything-for-a-laugh approach does mirror that of book author Brian Hargrove, and unfetters his terrific cast to allow their skill and buoyancy to shine through. The script does provide the basis for Tyne Daly to bring a bit of humanity to her Jewish mother. The ebullient Daly does this by projecting the tension between her appalling behavior and her efforts to hold herself back. Daly has a compelling stage presence which takes some of the sting out of Judy's bad behavior without losing any of her laughs. Harriet Harris successfully steps outside of her Georgette in order to bemusedly comment on her role. It is a wise, flat-out comic portrayal which wins us over to the performer's side even as we intellectually abhor the character whom she is portraying. Richard Kline and Howard McGillin as their respective spouses each perform with an easy charm which brightens the proceedings.

The final bow and arguably central role is in the hands of Lisa Howard who plays Jenny. Howard brings a likeable sweetness to her role. She gets a chance to display her strong voice singing "Jenny's Blues" early in the second act. She has just blown up at her demanding, demeaning mother and screamed to her, "Mom, I'm through being your BITCH". Even under the circumstances, there is nothing in Jenny's range of expression which can make that phraseology believable in her mouth. David Josefsberg is appealing as the old family boyfriend. Jessica Hershberg and Matthew Hydzik as the bride and groom, and Carla Duren and Curtis Holbrook in their smaller roles as lovers in waiting, all make fine ingénues. Edward Hibbert is his usual solid self, but there is not much any actor could do to bring freshness to the played out stereotypical role of Albert.

The ballads by Barbara Anselmi are bland and uninteresting. The bouncy tunes for the comic numbers are generic. The book and lyrics are by Brian Hargrove (there are additional lyrics credited to five other writers). Among the comic tunes, "Nice" as sung by Tyne Daly makes the strongest impression. Is the Brian Howard in It Shoulda Been You modeled after Brian Hargrove? Are Brian Howard's parents in the show modeled after his parents? If they are, is their portrayal fair or accurate? At the end of the day is Hargrove fair or tolerant toward any of the four parents?

The production is enhanced by Anna Louizos' attractive set for the bridal suite. However, removing scenic elements to reveal the orchestra does not a hotel ballroom make.

William Ivey Long's evocative and attractive costumes are first rate. Other contributors worthy of note are choreographer Noah Racey, lighting designer Ken Billington and orchestrator Douglas Besterman

Maybe, I'm taking this dated, stereotyping bit of fluff too seriously. As noted, the George Street Playhouse does have an audience pleasing hit on its hands. This is a very good thing. It is also a very good thing to see the older-skewering audience delight in and embrace gay marriage so enthusiastically. It should serve as a warning to conservative Presidential aspirants such as Rick Santorum that strident opposition to gay marriage is akin to stepping on the third rail.

It Shoulda Been You continues performances through November 6 (Evenings: Tuesday-Saturday (except 10/22) 8 PM; Sunday (except 10/30 & 11/6) 7 PM/ Matinees Thursday, Saturday & Sunday at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, N.J. 08901; Box Office: 732-246-7717; Online: www.GSPonline.org/

It Shoulda Been You Book and Lyrics by Brian Hargrove; Music by Barbara Anselmi; Additional Lyrics by Jill Abramovitz, Carla Rose Fisher, Michael Cooper, Ernie Lijoi, and Will Randall; based on a concept by Barbara Anselmi; directed by David Hyde Pierce

Cast
Jenny Steinberg......................................Lisa Howard
Walt/Uncle Morty..................................Tom Deckman
Mildred/Aunt Sheila..................................Mylinda Hull
Judy Steinberg............................................Tyne Daly
Murray Steinberg...................................Richard Kline
Rebecca Steinberg.......................Jessica Hershberg
Brian Howard.....................................Matthew Hydzik
Greg Madison.....................................Curtis Holbrook
Annie Sheps.............................................Carla Duren
Albert.................................................Edward Hibbert
Georgette Howard.................................Harriet Harris
George Howard.................................Howard McGillin
Marty Kaufman................................David Josefsberg


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


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- Bob Rendell



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