Julian Eaves reviews Kevin Clifton in The Wedding Singer now playing at the Troubadour Theatre in Wembley Park
The Wedding Singer
Troubadour Theatre, Wembley Park,
4th February 2020
As a sub-section of the rom-com genre, the ‘Wedding Misfit’ story is a well-ploughed furrow. The lead character is someone who plays a pivotal, predictable and usually successful role in helping other people towards marital bliss; but, crucially, when their own emotional happiness is at stake, they make a hash of things, and have to re-assess their outlook, re-evaluate and redraw their relationships, and bring their life back into line to achieve their own ‘wedded perfection’. Simple. In musical theatre, its origins can be traced back – at least – to 1964’s epoch-making, ‘Hello, Dolly!’, a show which rejoices in a superlative score and a brilliant book by no less a genius than Thornton Wilder. However, while the form has undoubted popular appeal, the problem created by its sheer familiarity is, how do you create a fresh and original approach?
In this case, winning spin seems to come from the originators, Adam Sandler and Tim Herlihy, who developed a love of stand-up routines and topical satire (that most ephemeral of arts), with their roots in the US hit TV show, ‘Saturday Night Live’, before turning it all into the 1990s popular movie of the same name. Herlihy stayed on as book-writer for the musical version made a decade later, drawing in their own original songs and a lot of new ones by composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist and co-librettist, Chad Beguelin. A great deal of the attraction of this show is finding so much of the irreverent, almost juvenile SNL humour permeating the thoughts and words of the characters. However, like the throw-away burlesques and parodies that are the staple of that kind of work, while often hugely funny the jokes here do not leave much of a trace: they are gone as quickly as they appear and – alas – are not always very strong foundations for memorable theatre.
This is a pity, because I liked watching this show a lot. Nevertheless, a rag-bag collection of ‘gags’ is not a substitute for ‘characterisation’ or a credible plot. So, the show has to stand or fall on its vaudevillian merits. Well, yes and no. Not content with giving us plenty to laugh at, the authors of this work do also want us to care about their characters and what happens to them. To bring us closer to them, their salvation lies in emotive ballads, of which there are many, served up as an antidote to the screwball excesses of the story.
To make all this gel, director and choreographer Nick Winston throws everything he has at this production: he is a supple and economical director, and a brilliant arranger of set-piece dance numbers, delivered very much ‘out front’ like variety numbers. The songs – nearly two dozen of them – are all pretty much pastiches or spoofs of Eighties hits, and when drawing on larger forces they get a suitably ‘flat’, pop-video-like delivery: Winston is at his very best with these ensembles, packing them full of extraordinarily unexpected and eye-catching detailing. His 18-strong company relish these moments, and Erin Bell in particular stands out as one of the shows’ glories here.
In the leads, Kevin Clifton as the title character, Robbie Hart, is a popular face and an amiable one, but he always lives in the shadow of his crystal-voiced and brilliantly comic opposite half, Rhiannan Chesterman in the odd will-she-won’t-she role of Julia Sullivan. For her, this production is a triumph, because she gets to remain ‘in character’ most, and is least troubled by the prankish grotesqueries demanded of just about everybody else. On the other hand, Jonny Fines as pasteboard villain Glen Gulia also gets a completely coherent and reliable character, and scores a great personal hit: to get from here to, say, Patrick Bateman in ‘American Psycho’ would present him one feels with no great difficulty at all: he has one of the best bodies on stage, which he plays for all its worth to make us understand his – temporarily – hypnotic appeal for Sullivan… and Hart.
It is pleasing to discover such dark currents lurking under the sparkle of 80’s glamour, and it is one of this production’s great pluses. Let us also give three cheers for Sandra Dickinson’s blazing turn as radical gran, Rosie, who is on top form, as is Tara Verloop who does a great job as best friend, Holly. And there is so much more: Winston has helped his wonderfully strongly deployed cast achieve the best possible incarnations of this crazy bunch of types. With Francis O’Connor’s multi-form set and splendid costumes, lit ingeniously by Ben Cracknell with zillions of cues from a fairly straightforward rig, and a band bashing out bristling new orchestrations by MD George Dyer (supervision by Sarah Travis), given plump amplification by Ben Harrison’s sound design, it’s a top-quality product, to adorn any fun-seeking calendar over the coming month.
And where is it headed after its brief scheduled run at this new venue? We’ll have to wait and see. DLAP Entertainment may take their production anywhere next… wherever wedding bells chime and hearts fall in love.