Flashback to ‘Flashdance’

“The Wedding Singer” relives the ’80s and that ain’t bad

Decades from now, it’s more than likely that high schools everywhere will be doing their own, though somewhat verbally sanitized, version of “The Wedding Singer.” Contrary to what you might think, this is intended as a high compliment. In the ways that “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Grease” are now seen as more or less accurate representations of young people in the 1950s and early 1960s, whatever the reality, “The Wedding Singer” is likely to become the cultural touchstone for how people were in the 1980s.

Not that anyone ever thought that the fashion, music, and social structures of New Jersey during this decade were crying out to be enshrined in a musical, but having been done, the results are energetic, infectious, and completely satisfying. If you lived through this period, the show will bring back all kinds of memories, and if you didn’t—yes, the hair was really that bad.

Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy have adapted the popular movie of the same name, but for my money, their musical is much more fun. It’s unbridled exuberance, excessive characters, and abundant wit are exactly what the completely escapist musical should be. The story is typical musical fare—a would-be heavy metal singer finds that he’s able to make a living as a wedding singer and becomes a permanent fixture. He’s dumped at the altar, and wouldn’t you know meets a girl he falls for on the spot. She, however, is engaged to another guy, but we know that he’s not the right guy for a girl like her. Ballads, comic songs, and craziness follow, and the wedding singer ends up with the right girl and we all go dancing into the night.

Beguelin and Herlihy have studied the masters of the just-for-fun show and have put charming characters in the lead, surrounded by quirky secondary characters and ridiculous situations, but they’ve never abandoned the heart. And that’s really the secret to this kind of show—real feelings in abstract, if not downright implausible situations. It’s worked for decades in the shows mentioned above, and can be seen in the revival of “The Pajama Game.” Call it conventional if you will, but the conventions of the musical have endured because they work.

Even within that context, however, “The Wedding Singer” sparkles. The wit of its lyrics, the comedy, and the ironic humor of the period are all very much part of the book. At one point in listing all kinds of horrible things that could happen, Robbie intones “a piñata full of bees.” This kind of unexpected skewed humor, along with deliciously forced rhymes, inherent silliness, and a number about being stuck in a dumpster, give this show a—dare I say it—depth that it shares with the other classics of this genre. Matthew Sklar’s witty score perfectly captures the chord progressions, harmonies and typical melodic lines of 1980s pop/rock, and it’s done with affection. What could be snarky satire is instead a kind of homage, and you’ll probably roll your eyes that you could have ever responded to this type of music, but you did. And that’s not at all a bad thing. This is roll down the windows, dance around the living room music—a guilty pleasure indeed, but a pleasure to be sure.

Stephen Lynch plays Robbie Hart with a kind of innocent fun that’s irresistible. Lynch’s preppy looks belie the heavy metal rocker he wanted to be, and the incongruity when he breaks into “Casualty of Love” at a reception is hilarious. Laura Benanti is absolutely delightful as Julia, the love interest. Her pure voice and wonderful spirit make the worldly/naïve dichotomy of the character a consistently pleasure. Amy Spanger as the slutty friend is a treat. She is a consummate Broadway singer/dancer who literally flings herself into the role of Holly. Felicia Finley is dynamic as Linda, the metal chick who dumps Robbie. She has only a couple of numbers, but she brings down the house. Kevin Cahoon is fun as the gay member of the wedding band, even if his jokes are obvious, and Matthew Saldivar is great as the other member of the band. Rita Garnder gives a good turn as your stereotypical hip grandma, and Richard H. Blake is fun as the hard charging but achingly shallow Yuppie.

The entire ensemble, in fact, is top-notch. Rob Ashford’s athletic choreography is a picture of the period. John Rando’s direction keeps the action and humor going and, most importantly, helps the actors find the humans in the caricatures.

I’ve now seen “The Wedding Singer” twice, and would happily go back again. There is more unabashed fun on this stage than we’ve seen since “Hairspray.” There’s a lot of talent involved in this production. No wonder it comes off without a hitch. Oh, wait. It’s about getting hitched. Well, you know what I mean.

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