Last Updated on 1st September 2015
It Shoulda Been You
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
7 April 2015
Okay, so it’s about a wedding. One of two sisters is getting married. The bride is Jewish, the groom is not. Neither mother wants the wedding to go ahead, but for different reasons. The bride’s mother is an archetypal Jewish mother; the groom’s an archetypal alcoholic who doesn’t want to let her baby boy go. Add two energetic friends serving as Bridesmaid and Best Man, an almost omnipotent omnipresent wedding planner, two fathers who don’t know what their children want from them, and a rogue former boyfriend of the Bride and there you have all that can be said about the plot of It Shoulda Been You, a new musical now in previews at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway.
Because if you say anymore, then the joyful experience of the comic twists and turns of the plot will be spoilt and, trust me, you don’t want to have an inkling of the moment when everything is turned on its head, when even the apparently all seeing and all knowing Wedding Planner “didn’t see that coming.” I had no idea and I am glad I didn’t, because when it happens it is so genuinely unexpected/shocking/wonderful that you laugh in that unfettered, all-consuming way that reminds you of your happiest childhood days.
Once you know the twists, you can, in retrospect, see how carefully and intricately the clues have been laid and the trap set up for you, and you cannot help but admire the skill and ingenuity involved in the plotting, the text and the lyrics. As the authors have cleverly set at least two possible plot developments firmly in your mind by the time the real twist comes, being floored is almost guaranteed. Let yourself be floored: you won’t regret it.
It Shoulda Been You was conceived by composer Barbara Anselmi and the book and lyrics have been written by Brian Hargrove. Hargrove has a long career in writing television and it shows – his writing is commendably spare, characters are clearly and clever drawn, he writes with visuals in mind as well as story and character, and there are a lot of quick scene changes. The lyrics (there are five writers apart from Hargrove who have supplied additional lyrics for various numbers) are really excellent, witty and rueful as occasion demands.
The plotting and propulsion of the narrative is handled superbly. This is a very well constructed work – take away the music and you would have a very respectable one Act comedy in the early Neil Simon style but very modern too. There are many many laughs, a great number of which are unexpected, in the sense that you think you know where the joke will come, but it comes from a different place entirely.
Anselmi’s music is charming, tuneful and often very beautiful. There are some knockout solos and duets in different styles, some great character driven comic pieces, and some ear-worm ensemble hits. One may not leave the theatre humming any of the tunes, but experiencing the music as part of the show is undoubtedly delightful and several numbers bring the house down easily.
Jenny, the sister of the Bride, has an extraordinarily powerful ballad: Beautiful. It is an anthem of great power, and works marvellously as a moving character piece here. Indeed, but for the Carole King show with the same name, Beautiful might have been a better title for this piece.
Essentially, the entire show is about beauty, and the love that generates, creates and acknowledges different kinds of beauty. It is not just the physically perfect Bride and Groom who are beautiful – everyone else in the story is beautiful to someone, at least by the end of the show. Parents have accepted the beauty of their children, children seen the beauty of the their parents, and all have seen the beauty of truth and acceptance.
The central throughline focuses on Jenny, the Rubenesque sister of the Bride. She is the capable, sensible daughter that her mother relies upon, the warm, caring sister of the Bride. But she is very overweight and regrets that she will never wear her mother’s wedding dress (as her sister is about to do) and has just about given up on anyone finding her beautiful, despite her genuinely attractive face, charismatic personality and zest for life. Her number, Beautiful, sees her frankly appraising herself in her underwear, dreaming of someone someday calling her beautiful and not just “nice”, which, as Sondheim has taught us, is different than “good”.
Lisa Howard is astonishingly good as Jenny. She is the true star here. Her singing is full-bodied and true, ringing tones that sparkle and thrill. She has great comic timing but is also expert at dealing with the very raw, emotional scenes which unfold in this unusual nuptial catastrophe. It’s a truthful, brave and genuinely bravura turn. Her performance alone is worth the admission price.
Sierra Boggess and David Burtka are impossibly beautiful, separately and together, as the deliriously happy couple. Both are perfect and play off each other with precision and skill. Burtka’s “song and dance” with his father over a pre-nuptial agreement is a clever and ingenious routine, and Boggess brings her special vocal lustre to A Little Bit Less Than, a gorgeous ballad that soars on important sentiments about honesty.
Chip Zien enjoys himself tremendously as the funny old father of the Bride and, as a result, the audience enjoys him. Michael X. Martin is slightly too bland as the stern distant father of the Groom, but he nevertheless works well enough not to impede the comic juggernaut around him. Nick Spangler and Montego Glover are just delightful as the besties of the happy couple and their surprise song at the wedding is a gloriously over-the-top moment of unbridled silly fun.
As the boy it shoulda been marrying the Bride, Josh Grisetti is downright fabulous. From his hilarious entrance (never seen a character introduced in quite such a way before) to his embarrassed, but supremely touching and effective confession in the ladies toilet, he is a complete and total delight. He brings the heart to the piece and then shares it with everyone else. Terrific in every way.
Playing with form, the piece sees three characters who talk to the audience: the Wedding Planner (Albert) and his male and female assistants. Edward Hibbert coasts along amiably enough as Albert, but one could not help but feel that the part had more to offer and that a more astute performer and singer would have turned the role into a show-stealing one. Director David Hyde Pierce, for instance, would have found layers and business Hibbert has not.
Albert’s assistants, played by Adam Heller and Anne L. Nathan, are humourously downbeat but wily nevertheless. And both appear as other characters – the daft uncle and the slutty Aunt. Nathan is especially voracious and grim as the Aunt and her terrorising stalking of Spangler’s character is very funny.
Tyne Daly doesn’t miss a single beat as Judy, mother of Jenny and the Bride. It’s a part that fits Daly like a glove and lets her flex all of her theatrical memory muscles without strain. She is funny and arch, viciously maternal, and perfect in every way. She is in fine voice and her rendition of the eleven o’clock number, What They Never Tell You, superb and thunderously delivered.
But the icing on this particular wedding cake comes in the shape of Harriet Harris, who is incandescent as the all but pickled mother of the Groom, Georgette. Harris is pure delight as the overwrought mother who does not want the moment to come when she will not be the most important woman in her son’s life. Her hilarious number, Where Did I Go Wrong, where she charts her failed attempts to steer her prodigy into first, a life of celibacy as a priest, or, secondly, life as a homosexual, bristles with that special sort of humour which comes from genuine terror. But not even her expose of her son to the halcyon days of Sondheim saw her get her way, she bleats, her mind turning to the next gin.
Harriet and Daly are magnificent together, facing off to each other, clutch-purses at dawn. The barbed banter is delivered in sizzling style. She is also utterly believable as the mother of her impossibly perfect son and her impossibly dull, but fantastic at sex, husband. Harriet gives a masterful portrait of wealth in crisis, patronising, panicked and perfectly miserable.
Hyde Pierce directs everything with masterful precision and sparkling élan. Anna Louizos’s gorgeous and versatile grand hotel set is used to great effect, with concealed and unconcealed doors and corridors aplenty and excellent use of different levels to achieve a sense of movement and continuity and to build tension and expectation.
Unsurprisingly, William Ivey Long’s costumes are spectacularly beautiful and the variations on blue and pink he has chosen are magnificent. Everyone looks crisp and at their absolute best at all times. Even the ghastly outfit for the would-be man eating Aunt, a triumph in tastelessness, is a wonder of style and impeccably wrong.
Josh Rhodes provides fun, mostly gentle choreography which warms the heart rather than quickens the pulse. There were occasions when some slightly flashier footwork might have been desirable, but overall the style is perfect and the effect very pleasing.
Lawrence Yurman ensures the music is played and sung to best advantage and there are no qualms about the orchestra. The songs glow with innate joy and every one adds to the whole picture of this, the best day in the Bride’s life.
This is the sort of Musical Comedy which puts equal emphasis on the constituent parts – music and comedy. It’s a gentle, involving and delicious confection. Rather like a wedding, it has taken careful plotting and planning; rather like a wedding cake, it has lots of layers and very fine ingredients to ensure that something will appeal to everyone. It’s not sickly sweet, but surprising and touching, like all good weddings should be.
A superb cast; clever, sprightly direction; an enjoyable score and clever books and lyrics. A musical theatre marriage of the best kind. With a genuine Broadway star at the heart of it: Lisa Howard.
See it. Don’t be that person about whom people say It Shoulda Been You that saw it.