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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Bright Lights, Big City

Bright Lights, Big City
Orfeh, Jeremy Kushnier, and Andy Karl
The Prince Music Theater's production of Bright Lights, Big City has a lot going for it - excellent performances, exciting music and dynamic staging by director Stafford Arima. Yet there's a hole at the middle of the show where its heart should be. Impressive as the show is in many ways, it's sabotaged by characters that are unsympathetic - and in some cases downright unlikable - and the attempts by composer Paul Scott Goodman to humanize them don't work.

Adapted from Jay McInerney's landmark 1984 novel set in the cocaine-infused New York party scene, Bright Lights centers on a protagonist (unnamed in the novel, but called Jamie here, and played with a nice, forthright mixture of bravado and vulnerability by Jeremy Kushnier) who loses his wife when her modeling career takes precedence over her marriage. Meanwhile, Jamie's job at a magazine seems to be hanging by a thread. Still, the more precarious his life becomes, the more he dives into the Manhattan club scene. (While trying to pull his life together, Jamie obsesses over tabloid stories - a missing girl and a "coma baby" - which seem to parallel his own life; yet these are dealt with so briefly in the play that their symbolic significance to Jamie's story is glossed over.)

The explanation the show offers for Jamie's behavior - that it's his way of dealing with his grief over his mother's death and his anger over the end of his marriage - doesn't seem sufficient to justify his actions. Even the way he resolves his problems at the story's end seems unsatisfying and incomplete.

The emptiness at the center of the show wouldn't be such a glaring weakness if there were other characters we could care about. Instead, Jamie's best friend Tad (Andy Karl) does little but smile as he leads Jamie from one party to the next, from one coke dealer to the next, from one girl to the next. He does do Jamie a favor by setting him up on a blind date with Vicky, a philosophy student who sees the good in Jamie and gives him a chance at redemption. Yet Vicky is more a collection of personality traits than a three-dimensional person, and that's true of nearly all of the characters here. In Goodman's adaptation, most of the characters are only defined in terms of how Jamie reacts to them. There are times when a character acquires depth - as when Jamie's vicious boss (played with relish by Orfeh) reveals the private torment behind her tough exterior - but those moments are rare.

Goodman's music is exhilarating; it convincingly evokes the sound of 1980s rock without resorting to parody, but does not sound dated. The arrangements (largely based on the ones from last year's excellent studio cast recording) shine at the Prince thanks to a tight five-piece band and a clear sound mix.

Unfortunately, Goodman also wrote the overly verbose lyrics - and since the show is almost completely sung, those lyrics carry the burden of telling the story. A more conventional book might have helped give the characters more depth; instead we get songs that detail "So Many Little Things," as one song puts it, yet reveal little. Goodman's lyrics roll by at a feverish pace, but the they are more concerned with moving from plot point to plot point than revealing character. At times the barrage of words is reminiscent of early Elvis Costello (who is even mentioned a few times), but without Costello's wizardry at witty wordplay. (One Bright Lights song actually features dancers in a nightclub chanting "I want to have sex tonight," which drew snickers from the opening night audience.) The one deliberately comic song, "I Hate the French," has some cute rhymes but is essentially one long nasty joke that makes Jamie seem even less likable.

The cast does not have one weak link; it's refreshing to see a musical in which even the smallest roles are played by such superb singers and actors. Among the standouts are Julie Tolivar, as a sweet and sincere Vicky; Jonathan Shade, touching as Jamie's brother; and Kelli Barrett, a University of the Arts student who displays real star power as Jamie's ex-wife.

There's also excellent design work, especially by costumer Karen Ann Ledger, who has created some clever variations on the basic black that everyone in this New York (except Jamie) seems to wear.

She has done some great work, as has nearly everyone involved with this slick, largely enjoyable production of Bright Lights, Big City. Unfortunately, the character of Jamie - at least as depicted in Goodman's lyrics - is not sympathetic enough to warrant the audience's interest, even in a show that is less than 90 minutes long. Without someone to root for, this rock musical is just a lot of noise.

Bright Lights, Big City runs through Sunday, June 25. Ticket prices range from $25 to $40, with a $10 Student Rush ticket (based on availability), and may be purchased by calling the Prince Music Theater box office at 215-569-9700, in person at 1412 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, or online at www.princemusictheater.org.

Bright Lights, Big City
Book, Music and Lyrics by Paul Scott Goodman
Based on the novel by Jay McInerney
Directed by Stafford Arima
Music Direction & additional arrangements ... Jesse Vargas
Choreographer ... Andrew Palermo
Artistic Advisor ... Kurt Deutsch
Scenic Designer ... Todd Ivins
Costume Designer ... Karen Ann Ledger
Lighting Designer ... Tyler Micoleau
Sound Designer ... David Pisani
Casting Director ... Janet Foster
Philadelphia Casting ... Richard M. Parison, Jr.
Production Stage Manger... Brian V. Klinger

CAST:
Kelli Barrett... Amanda
Don Daniels ... Chuck Bean/Depardieu
Christopher deProphetis ... Pierre
Andy Karl ... Tad
Alex Keiper ... Coma Baby/Elaine
Jeremy Kushnier ... Jamie
Marian Murphy ... Mom
Orfeh ... Clara/Theresa
Jonathan Shade ... Michael
Julie Tolivar ... Vicky
Alyse Wojciechowski ... Mary O'Brien McCann/Elise


-- Tim Dunleavy



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