The music is tasty bubble gum but, like that sticky substance, it loses it flavor as the night wears on. Composer Matthew Sklar may have been hamstrung by the show's 1980's setting; given that decade's music, how good could a pastiche score be? It seem that the authors of Hairspray were more in love with 1960s music than Sklar and lyricist Beguelin are with the songs of the '80s; The Wedding Singer has a feeling of condescension that isn't found in that other show. Still, Beguelin's lyrics are often excellent. The rhyme he found for "Herschel" and the way he uses the old expression "holler uncle" are just two bright spots of many.
Beguelin collaborated on the book of the musical with Tim Herlihy, the screenwriter of the original 1998 movie on which the show is based. As our story begins, wedding singer Robbie Hart and waitress Julia Sullivan are respectively involved with Linda and Glen. Nevertheless, we immediately know that Robbie and Julia are going to wind up together, no matter how many roadblocks come their way. (There are a few too many, stretching the complications just so the show can be a full-length-musical.)
Though we never doubt that these two will eventually be hitched, we want it to happen so much that we remain interested throughout the show. That's because the book writers have done a nice job of creating two nice characters. We immediately like Robbie, for at a wedding he's working, the best man makes a vulgar and incriminating remark that could have short-circuited the marriage right then and there, but Robbie works hard to smooth it over. And when one of his band members wants them to skip an upcoming gig, Robbie says, "We're not going to show up on the most important night in someone's life?" He's a good guy. He cares.
Julia's a salt-of-the-earther, too. When Robbie's relationship with Linda goes sour, she's there for him, ready to listen, encourage, and nurture. He'll return the favor later on. Indeed, Robbie is willing to sacrifice a potential relationship with Julia because he thinks that the career-tracked Glen could make her happier. Nice, too, that when Robbie changes careers to please her, she doesn't approve; Julia wants him to be happy on his own terms. Aren't we always hearing how people should get to know each other as friends before they fall in love? Well, Robbie and Julia do, and that makes The Wedding Singer so much stronger than those hundreds of musicals where love at first sight is all that a bride and groom have going for them. In fact, Beguelin and Herlihy are well aware of that trite convention, and they make a nifty joke about it.
A big caveat is the show's emphasis on the vulgar; it certainly isn't going to be endorsed by New Jersey Convention and Visitors Bureau. Most of the characters haven't gone to elocution school ("Harold axed me to be his best man"), and their values aren't the loftiest. Scott Pask's sets include water heaters, oil tanks, and toilet stalls. But Jersey boys and girls who have a sense of humor about themselves will have a wonderful time.
The production is extraordinarily fortunate to have Laura Benanti on hand. She has an I'll-be-a-good-sport smile and a lovely, caring demeanor that well serves Julia. The fact that the character works at an establishment called "A Touch of Class" is quite apt, for Benanti radiates that. However, Stephen Lynch as Robbie may send audiences to their Playbills to see if they missed the little slip of paper announcing that, at this performance, the role is being played by an understudy. He's consistently competent, but this is not the breakout turn that the show could have used.
Amy Spanger is Holly, Julia's good-hearted friend, and Felicia Finley is Robbie's heartless ex, Linda. Both score, and so does Richard H. Blake as Julia's fiancé, Glen; with every hair in place and a cocky attitude, he comes across as a benign Scott Peterson. It's nice to see Robbie's band member George portrayed as a no-big-deal-about-it homosexual by Kevin Cahoon. The other band member, Sammy, is adroitly played by Matthew Saldivar -- which isn't easy, considering that this character is the center of the show's vulgarity. Rita Gardner, who created the role of The Girl in the original Off-Broadway production of The Fantasticks, is now The Grandmother -- and a randy one at that. Her material isn't the greatest, but she admirably gives it her all.
John Rando has directed the show efficiently -- though, in the scene where Robbie's in a dumpster, he should have made both Robbie and Julia disgusted with this smelly container rather than putting their hands and bodies all over it without reacting. Rob Ashford's choreography suffers the same fate as Sklar's music; it's got to be '80s, so it's got to be ludicrous. The production numbers that really land are the solos and duets, which one wouldn't expect from a show like this.
The Wedding Singer almost always hits the target, though it almost always misses the bull's-eye. Robbie Hart almost certainly won't stick around as long as Roxie Hart has, but this show may very well have the staying power to be next summer's musical, too.
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