Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The popular host of a cruise ship karaoke bar, Avery (Brenson Thomas) is returning to his childhood home to live with his recently widowed mother Mel. As a single young man in his "mid to late early thirties," Avery casually resents what he assumes will be a diminished social life in the suburbs. However, things back home get interesting pretty quickly. A neighborhood association is knocking at the door to talk about what's happened to the front yard since his mother Miriam passed. The Grindr app reveals a surprisingly interesting local. His cantankerous mom and very pregnant sister both want to talk about who exactly is going to own the house. Along the way there is a lot of great karaoke and some seriously interesting discussions about gentrification and solar panels.
Presented as a sort of memory play, Backing Track is narrated by Avery, who speaks and sings his favorite karaoke tunes directly to the audience. Brenson Thomas is ridiculously charismatic as the young-ish Avery. His connection with the audience is magical and just minutes after the house lights went down I felt like I was being taken into the confidence of a cool close friend. We also have access to some of Avery's cell phone notifications via projections on the set and the profiles on his Grindr via some very clever staging by director Rebecca Wright. The whirlwind of family drama, pop cultural references, internal monologues, karaoke songs, and creative projections makes for some extremely funny and fast paced storytelling. The only time the pace seems to drag is in the second act when the sharp dialogue and compelling narrative give way to a bit too much navel gazing.
While the perspective we experience most is Avery's, his family and neighbors are also grappling with change while attempting to find meaningful connection. Avery's mother Mel (Melanye Finister) is attempting to be supportive of her adult children and to get ready for her first grandchild while still coming to terms with the loss of her wife. Finister captures that confusion and frustration, but doesn't make a convincing parental connection with Thomas or Danielle Leneé, who plays Avery's sister Jessica.
Leneé is deliciously snarky and delivers an authentic dose of sisterly affection. The chemistry between Thomas and his love interest Abraham (Carl Hsu) is also spot on. Hsu is utterly charming, bringing a vulnerability and quiet wisdom to his role. The scene where Hsu and Thomas go for a car ride together is both a delicately touching personal interaction and a magnificent bit of stagecraft by scenic designer Chris Haig and projection designer Taj Rauch. Bi Jean Ngo has the most adorable energy as Esther, Abraham's sister and head of the neighborhood association. The evolving dynamic between Ngo and Finister is very satisfying and hysterical.
Seeing the world premiere of Backing Track in person after two years of pandemic is an uplifting and thoroughly enjoyable privilege. Set in 2018, just two years before the lockdowns started, the play has a heartbreaking nostalgia as well as an uncanny sense of urgency. See these innocent people who take it for granted that they will be able to go where and when they wish, without risk or vaccine cards or masks. See the wisdom in their struggle to reach out to each other and embrace the families they were born into and the one they can create together. Choose your pods wisely and do more karaoke, because the time we spend together is precious.
Backing Track runs through April 10, 2022, at the Arden Theater's Arcadia Stage, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia PA. For tickets and information, please call 215-922-1122 or visit ardentheatre.org.