The Wedding Singer Music by Matthew Sklar. Book by Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy. Lyrics by Chad Beguelin. Based up on the New Line Cinema film written by Tim Herlihy. Directed by John Rando. Choreographed by Rob Ashford. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Gregory Gale. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Casting by Bernard Telsey Casting. Hair design by David Brian Brown. Make-up design by Joe Dulude II. Orchestrations by Irwin Fisch. Cast: Stephen Lynch, Laura Benanti, Richard H. Blake, Kevin Cahoon, Felicia Finley, Tina Maddigan, Matthew Saldivar, Amy Spanger, and Rita Gardner; Adinah Alexander, Matt Allen, Tracee Beazer, Cara Cooper, Ashley Amber Haase, Nicolette Hart, Angelique Ilo, David Josefsberg, Peter Kapetan, Kevin Kern, Spencer Liff, Joanne Manning, J. Elaine Marcos, Michael McGurk, T. Oliver Reid, Christina Sivrich, Matthew Stocke, Eric Lajuan Summers.
News flash: If you can't laugh at the 1980s, you're a stick in the mud!
An odd message for a musical, no? Yet there's no other discernible point to The Wedding Singer, the flashy, facile, and futile new show at the Al Hirschfeld. It spends two and a half hours mocking the trends, fads, and foibles of a decade, in hopes that will be enough to anchor a brightly colored, surface-level musical comedy.
What's been forgotten by librettists Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy - like everyone involved in this robotically entertaining enterprise, from director John Rando on down - is that cheeky references are no substitute for wit. The dialogue encompasses such venerable '80s fixtures as The Clapper, New Coke, Mr. Belvedere, and Joanie Loves Chachi, which all do evoke the period in a general, harmless way. And there's no lack of attention to detail in the blinding pastels and California-influenced colors of the costumes (Gregory Gale); the mile-high-meets-low-flow-showerhead hair (David Brian Brown); and the choreography (Rob Ashford), which slavishly recreates all the era's defining dance moves.
Unfortunately, none of these things places any additional focus on the romance that is ostensibly the story's centerpiece. In the original 1998 film, for which Herlihy wrote the screenplay and in which Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore starred, the 1985 setting was merely background, not the raison d'etre. The characters were living in that year, perhaps occasionally delivering a line that would resonate knowingly with the moviegoing audience, but not continually reminding us how silly the '80s were and how glad we should be that they're over.
In the musical, no one has time for much else. The story of rocker-turned-wedding singer Robbie Hart (Stephen Lynch), and the reception-hall waitress he falls for, Julia Sullivan (Laura Benanti), is still present. But essentially gone is the story's underlying tension, generated in the film by Robbie's need for emotional stability but apparent indifference toward financial security.
Robbie's still left at the altar by the fiancée (here, Felicia Finley) who thinks he'll never amount to anything, and Julia still is caught up with an overambitious moneymaker (Richard H. Blake) who always puts her second, but who can comfortably provide for her. But Herlihy, Beguelin, and composer Matthew Sklar don't really use these characters - or those of Julia's cousin, Holly (Amy Spanger), and Robbie's bandmates, Sammy and George (Matthew Saldivar and Kevin Cahoon) - to examine, as the film did, money's positive and negative influences on relationships. (The money thread is even eventually forgotten entirely during the inexplicable celebrity impersonator-driven finale.)
Instead, the authors satisfy themselves with a molded-plastic show bursting with more quotation marks than an English textbook. Catch, for example, that unmistakable Van Halen riff kicking off the second act. Or Cahoon's entire character, modeled so closely after Boy George that Rosie O'Donnell could probably sue for copyright infringement on her own failed Broadway venture, Taboo. Or the synthesizer-heavy stylings of all the songs, orchestrated (by Irwin Fisch) and performed with such creamy gusto, they'd be at home in any 1980s teen flick.
That, by the way, isn't a bad thing on its own, as many of the songs, however derivative, are musically attractive. But the lyrics reduce Sklar's hard-rock or easy-listening melodies to wafer-thin larks that, except for a nice second-act duet for Robbie and Julia ("If I Told You"), do little for character.
Benanti, at least, can manage without the help. She taps into the warming, Belinda Carlisle charm of her songs to develop a disarming simplicity and purity for Julia that belies the show's pervasive falseness. This is on most visible display during her energetic longing song, "Someday," the show's musical highlight. But throughout, despite few chances to pop out her gorgeous high notes, she's doing the best work of her career.
Lynch is a passable singer and a fine comedian (he's never better than when recreating Sandler's songs from the film), but he's no actor, and his attempts to communicate Robbie's heartbroken plight read as far more cartoonish than he undoubtedly intends.
Benanti and Lynch are, however, the show's only "straight" men. Spanger is Madonna in her respectable-slut period; Cahoon, as mentioned, is Boy George, for no better reason than "just because"; Finley is solid hair metal, and sings her unintelligible songs in mostly that style; Saldivar's the stereotypical dorky heartthrob (complete with mullet); and Blake is Wall Street's Gordon Gekko minus Michael Douglas's appeal, poise, and commanding voice.
Rita Gardner is sadly wasted as Robbie's foul-mouthed grandmother, but is so infectious that even her most wince-worthy moments (which, well, are all of them) consistently make her the most magnetic figure onstage. Her decades of experience (she was the original Luisa in The Fantasticks) and natural stage presence bespeak a care and professionalism everyone else would do well to learn from.
Do other things work? Sure. Scott Pask's scenery is attractive and inventive, as is Brian MacDevitt's lighting. And Rando's direction, for once, brings out the best in the material.
But there's just not a lot of "best" here; "good enough" is the predominant offering; this is exemplified by the two visual gags that bookend the intermission. The second act opens with an entr'acte recreation of the trailblazing videogame Pong. It's very funny, yes, to see lights recreate those ubiquitous paddles and that ever-bouncing ball, but Pong was 1970s news; by 1985, even Pac Man (1980) was approaching passé.
Spanger herself is responsible for the other: She ends the first act in a
nightclub's go-go box, striking an evocative pose on a chair, and yanking a
chain that thoroughly douses her with water, a la Flashdance. Why, you
might ask? Why not, you can almost hear Rando and the authors respond.
They might have spared Spanger the drenching: She, as with so much else in
The Wedding Singer, was, like, already all wet.