Monday, July 26, 2010

A Sweet-n-Sour Thang

A Sweet- n- Sour Thang

By Tom Wachunas

After seeing the impressive scale of production (big ensemble, sets, costumes, sound) in the North Canton Playhouse presentation of “The Wedding Singer” at Canton’s Palace Theatre on July 25, I was left wondering: are the exaggerated superficialities of the material intended to be an outright parody of 1980s musical culture, or were the writers (music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, film written by Tim Herlihy) aiming for something more timeless in the way of truly original, memorable pop anthems? If the latter was the case, then they missed their mark by a hefty margin. And even as parody, the story line is – while sweet - fairly brainless, and most of the songs are melodically and lyrically anemic, despite the jarring employment of “adult language” in some of them (more on that in a bit).

So it is worth noting that for all of the mediocrity of the material at hand (Broadway track record notwithstanding), director Lisa Paynter managed to nonetheless elicit infectiously vibrant, often electrifying performances from her cast. She also co-directed the music with Brenton Cochran, who conducted the spirited and technically excellent five-piece band. The choreography by Kayla Hall was certainly energetic and competent enough, though unevenly executed. While some in the ensemble performed it with real pizzaz, others often looked lost in thought about their next move.

Mike Noble played Robbie Hart, a New Jersey wedding singer jilted at the altar by his fiancée, Linda. As both actor and singer, he was superbly facile, crisp, and often genuinely funny. Speaking of funny, some of the evening’s most endearing and hilarious moments came courtesy of Mary McManaway – founder of the North Canton Playhouse- in her role of Rosie (Robbie’s hip, rapper- grandmother). Elsewhere in the cast, Alexx Culbertson was thoroughly charming in her role as the gentle and trusting waitress who ultimately captures Robbie’s heart; Danielle Dorfmann, as Holly (Julia’s friend), commanded the stage with remarkable vocal power and earthy dramatic sensibility; A.J. Schumacher, playing Glen (Julia’s fiancée as the play opens) was devilishly slick in his portrayal of the greedy and conniving Wall Street wizard; and in her number, “Let Me Come Home,” Monica Young (playing Linda) was on fire as she schmoozed up to Robbie with all the slinky appeal of a feral cat in heat, complete with a viciously thick Joisey accent.

The song lyrics here are, for the most part, shallow exercises, occasionally enlivened with clever wordplay. And in terms of engaging translations of authentic emotion, they’re more superfluous than sublime. Additionally, the proceedings (spoken and sung) seemed noticeably peppered with raunchy confessional tidbits and vulgarities, including the f-bomb.

I realize that citing this aspect puts me squarely in old-school thinking about such issues, and the problem here wasn’t a wildly rampant one. But it was just present enough. All it takes is one or two expletives in a love story to leave a sour after-taste. A milder case in point: “A Note from Grandma.” Rosie sings her condolences to Robbie (just after he’s belted out his crazed “Somebody Kill Me”), adding fuel into his smoldering heart with this piece of advice: “You’ll find someone to love you / sure as waves will find the shore/ and when you’re sad, remember / that Linda is a skanky whore.” Hardly a healing lullaby rhyme from grandma, to be sure.

Did the 80s – over any other decade in recent times – have such a corner on the moral turpitude market as to justify the insulting language we encounter in “The Wedding Singer”? Certainly not. Was it vital to the credibility or sweetness of this particular story, then? Again, no. “But people really do talk like that” is an insouciant, toothless, and inapplicable defense of such vulgarities in this case. Even if viewed as a caricature, this cavalier “color” came off as merely gratuitous and embarrassing, and cheapened the proceedings of an otherwise professionally- delivered evening of musical theatre.

Interestingly enough, though, the audience in large part ate it up, along with lots of children in attendance. Clearly, we attended different schools.

Photo: Courtesy North Canton Playhouse: Cast of “The Wedding Singer,” presented at Canton’s Palace Theatre, July 23 -25

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