Review: A Sign of the Times Is the Latest Boomer Nostalgia Jukebox Musical

The York Theatre Company presents the off-Broadway premiere.

Chilina Kennedy (center) stars in the off-Broadway premiere of A Sign of the Times, directed by Gabriel Barre, for the York Theatre Company at New World Stages.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

We’re still living in the wake of one of the most significant cultural transformations in human history. That’s the intended takeaway from A Sign of the Times, the latest boomer nostalgia jukebox musical, now making its off-Broadway premiere with the York Theatre Company at New World Stages. Your response to this aggressively contrived tuner may vary depending on whether you think that transformation has been a good thing. Few, however, will be able to resist tapping their toes to the infectious pop score — which is itself a kind of dark magic that explains so much about America’s postwar cultural hegemony.

Songs originally popularized by Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, and Lesley Gore adorn the story of Cindy (Chilina Kennedy), a young photographer from Ohio. Her boyfriend, Matt (Justin Matthew Sargent), proposes marriage in front of all their friends on New Year’s Eve, 1965. But Cindy isn’t ready to settle down, so she hops a bus to New York City, where she meets SNCC activist Cody (Akron Lanier Watson) and aspiring singer Tanya (Crystal Lucas-Perry), who becomes her first roommate. A chance encounter with advertising executive Brian (Ryan Silverman) promises to open doors both professionally and personally. Meanwhile, back in Ohio, poor Matt gets drafted into the Vietnam War — a development that in no way puts Cindy off chasing her dreams.

And why stop when you’re having so much fun dancing to “The Shoop Shoop Song,” “Gimme Some Lovin’,” and “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” to name a few of the 25 songs included? The music sounds great under the direction of Britt Bonney. Joseph Church’s clever orchestrations offer the illusion of a full orchestra with brass and woodwinds (when really there’s just one reed player, the heroic Emma Reinhart). And David Dabbon’s pulse-quickening dance arrangements are like a 1A draft notice for your shoulders, conscripting you into the chorus.

Director Gabriel Barre delivers a peppy staging enhanced by a versatile and dynamic set (by Evan Adamson) and colorful retro costumes (Johanna Pan delivers a botanical garden’s worth of floral prints). Arms stretch and butts shimmy in JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography, which is one part Fosse, two parts Laugh In. It all pops spectacularly under Ken Billington’s vibrant TV studio lighting. Shannon Slaton’s crystal-clear sound ensures that we don’t miss a lyric.

Crystal Lucas-Perry plays Tanya, and Chilina Kennedy plays Cindy in A Sign of the Times, directed by Gabriel Barre, for the York Theatre Company at New World Stages.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

The actors do a fine job interpreting those lyrics: Kennedy turns Petula Clark’s “Who Am I?” into a compelling “I want” song, and later wows the audience on Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.” Watson soars in his rendition of the anthemic Elvis number “If I Can Dream.” Lucas-Perry brings joy to everything she touches, from Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me” to Etta James’s “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” which she gleefully belts out at an exclusive party hosted by the thinly veiled pop artist Randy Forthwall (Edward Staudenmayer plays this, and a dozen other minor roles with requisite frivolity).

These are all competent musical theater actors who bring quite a bit more relish to the songs than they do the dialogue. But I’m not sure even Meryl Streep could sell a line like, “I’ve been drafted. I’m stopping for the night in Clarksville, and after that I may be gone for a while. But Cindy, I still care about you. I pray you’ll be waiting for me when I come home, and I wish I could see you one last time. So…” [Cue music for “Last Train to Clarksville.”]

As is always the case with shows like this, the issue is the book, which is written by Lindsey Hope Pearlman, based on a story created by Richard J. Robin. It feels like they asked ChatGPT to spit out something that exists somewhere between Sex and the City and the Hallmark Channel on the personal fulfillment spectrum, with a little dash of Mad Men on the side to recognize the American genius for assimilating and monetizing counterculture. We can practically see the check boxes fill as the story brushes against civil rights, women in the workplace, the anti-war movement, and nascent gay rights. It’s all presented with the subtlety of an HR training video, blessedly interrupted with musical breaks.

Akron Lanier Watson (center) plays Cody in A Sign of the Times, directed by Gabriel Barre, for the York Theatre Company at New World Stages.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

In the final scene, set to Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” projection designer Brad Peterson presents the thesis of A Sign of the Times, with photographs of activists and social movements from the ’60s up to today flashing on the upstage wall (an image of Princess Diana appears for an uncomfortably long time). The message seems to be that the transformations of the ’60s are the foundation for everything that has come to pass since. And indeed, there is ample evidence for this as boomers cling to the reins of power deep into their dotage and shows like A Sign of the Times continue to be produced. It’s their world, we just live in it.

The transition away from class-conscious social activism toward something more interested in identity and personal fulfillment (which can therefore be more easily coopted by ad men like Brian) is indeed significant in this country’s cultural development (for a smart dramatization of this, I highly recommend James Graham’s play Best of Enemies). But again, whether you think A Sign of the Times has a happy ending or depicts the beginning of a still-unfolding tragedy depends very much on how comfortably you sit within the status quo, which has come to resemble a waiting room for the next era.

But at least we have great Muzak to enjoy while we wait.

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