The Wedding Singer may well be the most underrated Broadway musical of the last five years, and anyone wishing proof of the above has only to check out its regional professional premiere at Long Beach’s Musical Theatre West. An adroitly concocted blend of music, comedy, and 1980s nostalgia, The Wedding Singer is also one of the most unabashedly romantic musicals ever, and an utter delight from start to finish.
I fell in love with Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin’s songs from my very listen to the Original Cast CD back in 2006 when The Wedding Singer opened and closed on Broadway. Though the show lasted only a shamelessly short nine months on the Great White Way, it nonetheless engendered two National Tours, neither of which played locally, thereby giving the Musical Theatre West production event status, particularly as performed by as all-around perfect a cast as you’re likely to see on any musical theater stage under the exhilarating direction of Larry Raben.
Fans of the hit 1998 movie will recognize the story of sweet-hearted wedding singer Robbie Hart (Ciarán McCarthy), who after being dumped at the altar by trashy rocker chick fiancée Linda (Kelli Provart), begins to have feelings for girl-next-door waitress Julia (Renée Brna). There’s only one hitch. Julia is engaged to hotshot young business exec Glen (Derek Keeling), news which doesn’t sit well with Robbie, especially once he’s learned that Glen is a chronic philanderer with no plans to give up his cheating ways any time soon. No wonder, when Julia asks Robbie to sing at her wedding, his answer is … perhaps not quite what you might expect.
Supporting characters include Julia’s party-loving cousin Holly (Jenna Coker-Jones), Robby’s still vigorous grandma Rosie (Mary Jo Catlett), and his bandmates, mullet-wearing biker type Sammy (Nick Bernardi) and flamboyantly gay George (Matthew J. Vargo).
All these mostly lower middle class types come together in one of the most thoroughly enjoyable musicals since the similarly blue-collar The Full Monty, and one which sticks considerably closer to its source material than the latter’s U.K.-to-U.S. transformation. Like the smash hit Adam Sandler original, The Wedding Singer (The Musical) takes its 1980s time frame very seriously, from the costumes and hairstyles sported by its characters to the many ‘80s pop references in its book (by Beguelin and Tim Herlihy) to the musical sounds of the ‘80s replicated in Sklar and Beguelin’s melodious songs, and production number after production number spotlighting choreographer (and Wedding Singer Original Cast member) Spencer Liff’s thrilling dance moves.
The Wedding Singer was Sklar and Beguelin’s Broadway debut as composer and lyricist, and a noteworthy one it was. Beguelin’s lyrics range from straightforward (“So when it’s your wedding day and my music starts to play, I can guarantee that love will find you”) to unexpected (as when a sweet and heart-felt “Note From Grandma” ends with the advice that “when you’re sad, remember, that Linda is a skanky whore”) to downright deep (“I know not every marriage lasts when things go bad. I’ve seen the warning signs. I call them ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’”). Even better are Sklar’s melodies, many of them as instantly hummable as any you’ve heard in a Broadway show in the past decade or more. The New Jersey native is not only a master of the catchy hook; he also writes out-and-out gorgeous bridges and knows exactly when a key change will turn gorgeous to gorgeous-er. Those who like their songs a bit more on the rough side need not feel left out as Sklar has written some hard-edged rock numbers like “Casualty Of Love” with you in mind.
Songs as splendid as these deserve performances to match, and here Musical Theatre West has scored bullseye after bullseye.
Made-in-romcom-heaven couple McCarthy and Brna are two recent East-to-West-Coast transplants, and our Southern California musical theater scene is all the richer for their arrival. McCarthy plays Robbie with consummate charm, sings terrifically, strums a mean guitar, and manages all this without ever once imitating Adam Sandler. (Only McCarthy’s zero-percent body fat pecs and abs seem unlikely on ‘80s slacker Robbie, but who’s complaining?) Brna, whom I loved as Meg in the First National Tour of Little Women The Musical, is equally marvelous as Julia, as adorable as can be—and with vocal pipes to match. McCarthy and Brna have such palpable chemistry that I defy anyone with a heart not to become personally invested in the happily-ever-after Robbie and Julia so richly deserve.
Supporting the stellar duo are some of the best leading and character actors on this or any coast.
It’s easy to see Julia falling for Glen’s movie star good looks as embodied by the always excellent Keeling, having great fun this time as a caddish hunk. Lanky charmer Bernardi does winning work as loveable lug Sammy, and Matthew J. Vargo plays gay blade George with a genuine sweetness that transcends stereotyping. The divine Catlett makes it two winners in a row (following her warm, wacky, and utterly irresistible work in Bell Book And Candle) as the feistiest, funkiest, rappingest Granny on record. Broadway vet Provart takes her two brief scenes as Linda and sings the sexy, sizzling heck out of them. Finally, there’s Coker-Jones’ star-makingly ball-of-fire performance as Holly, as exciting an L.A. debut as you’ll ever see.
As for the show’s ensemble, I defy any Broadway show to surpass these fourteen triple-threats, each of whom executes his or her own multi-role track to indefatigable perfection, from veteran performers Tracy Lore (Angie) and Mark C. Reis to brand new CSUF grad Neil Starkenberg, soon to be Link Larkin in Moonlight Amphitheatre’s Hairspray. Tomasina Abate, Emily Goglia, and Ben Sidell’s work in leading roles has been raved about on StageSceneLA, and they are every bit as outstanding here in smaller but no less strenuous parts. Equally tremendous are Ashley Allen, Jasmine Ejan, Todrick D. Hall, Kasey Lysdahl, Daniel Smith, Katherine Washington, Timothy Wilson, and Kevin Wood. At the risk of repeating myself, the dozen-plus-two make for one of the most thrilling MTW ensembles ever.
David Lamoureux gets top marks for his sensational work as musical director. Prather Entertainment Group, producers of The Wedding Singer’s 2009-10 non-Equity tour, have provided the production’s vivid (and frequently hilarious) recreations of ‘80s fashions in all their big-shouldered awfulness, as well as the production’s colorful sets, which suffer from a bus-and-truck look but nonetheless do the trick. Local design talents Jean-Yves Tessier and Julie Ferrin merit nothing but raves for (respectively) their lighting and sound designs. Steven Glaudini is artistic director, Kevin Clowes technical director, Yolanda Rowell costume coordinator, Cliff & Kat Senior wig designers, Chris Warren Murry stage manager, and Mary Ritenhour assistant stage manager.
If it isn’t already obvious, I am madly in love with Musical Theatre West’s production of The Wedding Singer, and were it not for an overly crowded schedule, I’d gladly be back to see it again and again. Anyone with The Wedding Singer on their upcoming calendar is the object of this reviewer’s envy. Trust me. You’re in for an exciting, nostalgic, utterly romantic musical comedy treat!
Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.
July 14, 2011
Photos: Alysa Brennan