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Broadway Reviews

It Shoulda Been You

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 14, 2015

It Shoulda Been You Book and lyrics by Brian Hargrove. Music and concept by Barbara Anselmi. Directed by David Hyde Pierce. Choreographed by Josh Rhodes. Music direction and arrangements by Lawrence Yurman. Scenic design by Anna Louizos. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Ken Billington. Sound design by Nevin Steinberg. Hair design by Paul Huntley. Make-up design by Anne Ford-Coates. Orchestrations by Doug Besterman. Cast: Tyne Daly, Harriet Harris, Lisa Howard, Sierra Boggess, with David Burtka, Montego Glover, Chip Zien, Josh Grisetti, Adam Heller, Michael X. Martin, Anne L. Nathan, Nick Spangler, Farah Alvin, Gina Ferrall, Aaron C. Finley, Mitch Greenberg, Jillian Louis, and Edward Hibbert.
Theatre: Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street
Schedule: Tues 7:00 pm, Wed 2:00 pm, Wed 8:00 pm, Th 7:00 pm, Fri 8:00 pm, Sat 2:00 pm, Sat 8:00 pm, Sun 3:00 pm.
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Lisa Howard and Tyne Daly
Photo by Joan Marcus

No wedding ever goes off completely without a hitch. (At least no wedding with which I've been involved.) If everything aligns properly, the biggest hiccup will hopefully be no more than a caterer who's running late or a dress that just won't stay fastened in the right place. But if the underpinnings of faith, trust, and love are correct, the entire room could burn down and it would still be the best day of the key participants' lives. Without straining the metaphor too much, you could say that weddings are a bit like theatre in that way.

It Shoulda Been You, the new musical (about a wedding, no less) at the Brooks Atkinson by Brian Hargrove (book and lyrics) and Barbara Anselmi (music and concept) and directed by David Hyde Pierce, will probably not go down in Broadway history on a gleaming wave of adoration and innovation; it's too small, too unassuming for that. But darned if this aggressive little charmer, which is blessed with a twistedly twisting plot, fine songs, and a cast the biggest blockbuster would run down its producer for, isn't exactly the kind of warm spring delight we needed to see in the twilight of this season.

Be forewarned, though: This is not heavy going or heavy lifting, the way most of the other new musicals of 2014-2015 have been; in fact, it may appear slight even when compared to the worlds-colliding boulevard sex comedies of the 1960s that seem to be its foremost model. It Shoulda Been You may be able to get away with making a couple of gentle statements about society and family (mostly an entreaty to be accepting—that's not a spoiler, is it?), but at its considerable heart it just wants to play nice and have fun. And both goals it achieves readily.

It starts from a foundation of intentionally crushing familiarity: A young(ish) couple, Rebecca Steinberg (Sierra Boggess) and Brian Howard (David Burtka), is getting married at a swank destination hotel. (The unit set, pitched on cookie-cutter elegance, is the smart design of Anna Louizos; the well-coordinated costumes and lights are by William Ivey Long and Ken Billington.) She's Jewish, with a mother, Judy (Tyne Daly), and father, Murray (Chip Zien), that more than live up to their stereotypical reputations. He's Catholic, from a well-off family (Michael X. Martin plays dad George and Harriet Harris is mother Georgette). And though neither clan exactly approves of the other, they're willing to grin and bear it to get through the duo's big day.

Sierra Boggess, Nick Spangler, Montego Glover, and David Burtka
Photo by Joan Marcus

As if to underscore that that scenario could, in 2015 America, be seen as irritatingly cookie-cutter (if not coma-inducing), Hargrove and Anselmi spend much of their time investigating spicier environs. These primarily come by way of Jenny (Lisa Howard), the elder Steinberg sibling, who feels she's always lived in her sister's shadow and is less than thrilled Rebecca is marrying off before she is. She's also self-conscious about her weight, and has never found the approval she's wanted from her mother, so a day in which everyone focuses on Rebecca's beauty and worthiness is not easy for her.

That's not all. Though Jenny is a major focus of discontent, still more simmers around the edges as the day progresses. Best man Greg (Nick Spangler) and maid of honor Annie (Montego Glover) have something, apparently saucy, going on behind closed doors. When Rebecca's ex, Marty (Josh Grisetti), learns of the impending nuptials, he drops everything and literally runs across town to put a stop to them. And wedding planner Albert (Edward Hibbert) and his assistants (Anne L. Nathan and Adam Heller) know a bewildering amount—maybe too much?—about what everyone is going through.

Oh, and did I mention that all this happens in the first scene? After that, things get really crazy.

It's to the writers' credit that they're able to juggle so many tangled relationships—and I'm only scratching the surface—without dropping one of them, and keep them suspenseful and silly right up until the final scene, when (of course) everything is resolved to one degree or another. (That's definitely not a spoiler.)

What's more impressive is that they're able to do so with characters who are, at best, externally fascinating; beneath their skins, they're schematic, even archetypal, the kind one-dimensional figures any playwriting professor worth his salt would tut-tut at first glance. Your acceptance that the pieces all fit together is, unfortunately, predicated on enduring the braying Jewish mother and her kvetching husband, the too-devoted mom who can't let her son go, the flamboyant wedding planner, the universally loved "fat girl" and so on. Hargrove does eventually upend some of the expectations such people engender, and reveal that they, too, can be made of flesh and blood rather than cardboard, but he peddles a lot of dross in order to build to that point.

Chip Zien, Anne L. Nathan, Josh Grisetti, Tyne Daly, and Adam Heller
Photo by Joan Marcus

The score has a strong been-there, heard-that quality, with all the songs intelligently composed, and many of them mechanically enough to have emerged from a BMI sausage grinder. There are numbers like "This Day," in which everyone voices their anticipation/fears for the wedding, the title tune (in which Rebecca's family identifies the man they consider to be her proper mate), the ironic "A Perfect Ending" (just following the ceremony), and entries for Jenny that range from the melancholy ("I Never Wanted This," "Beautiful") to the showstopping ("Jenny's Blues"). And, naturally, one of the parents gets to state the point for the young folks in a song called "What They Never Tell You." (Josh Rhodes's accompanying dances are attractive enough, in their wedding-laid-back way.)

Here's the thing. It's all good. No, none of it's great. But just as artisanal vanilla ice cream does not require additional, more "exciting" flavors to be delicious, It Shoulda Been You doesn't need to be more adventurous to go down smoothly. The individual elements, unexceptional though they may be, are expertly polished and matched with each other, and curated with the sparkling eye and handsome sensitivity of Hyde Pierce's direction. As should not be surprising to anyone versed in his acting work, he ensures that the timing is flawless and the comedy in every case perfectly judged.

Then there's the cast, which could scarcely be improved on, from the "newer" talents on up. Lisa Howard (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) is the true lead, and fantastic—her portrayal seamlessly moves from self-pitying to standoffish to commanding, with a voice that matches it at every engaging turn. Though Boggess is best known as a soprano, the fierce belt she unleashes here is tightly connected to Rebecca's own secretly strong anguish, which Boggess also develops to its fullest extent. Grisetti, finally debuting on Broadway after just missing out with the closed-in-rehearsals Broadway Bound in 2009, instantly stakes a claim to one of Broadway's finest musical comedians, with a deliciously antic performance just barely lined with bitter sadness.

Daly, Zien, and Harris don't reinvent a thing as the kids' parents, but they don't need to; they're established pros who know just how far to take (and not take) the hoariest material to get the biggest, deepest laughs possible. Hibbert, likewise, is precisely in his element, and used beautifully throughout. Spangler, Glover, Martin, Heller, and Nathan all provide in-tune support in more marginally workmanlike roles. Only Burtka borders on the pedestrian; he hasn't found in Brian a firm comic or psychological center.

It Shoulda Been You, however, has, and that lets it land time and time again. After all, alchemy in the theatre—as with relationships—is ultimately about compatibility and devotion rather than freshness. And this show's dedication to delivering a good time, even if entirely through tried-and-true techniques, is unequivocally of the "till death do us part" variety.

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