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'Wedding Singer': Back to the '80s

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2006

NEW YORK

Mainstream musicals were once inspired by Sholom Aleichem, Thornton Wilder and George Bernard Shaw. In an era when we've become far more adept at recognizing brands than genius, though, Broadway is devoting a lot more resources to piggybacking on proven pop success -- the oeuvre, say, of Abba and Oprah.

Not in every case, of course. But where to look for adaptable material appears to favor, ever more intensively, buying power over narrative power. It can be easier to base the sale of a $110 ticket on a title that's already been stamped on a DVD.

Which brings us to "The Wedding Singer," the 1998 big-screen vehicle for Adam Sandler that now crops up as a peppy Broadway musical. Nothing about this property particularly screamed "show tunes!" -- except for the facts that its star played a man who entertains at weddings, and that the brash Sandler exuded the aptitude for subversion one might appreciate in a musical comedy's underdog hero.

And property is the right word. "The Wedding Singer," which opened last night at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre -- without Sandler or his fetching cinematic love interest, Drew Barrymore -- feels like a show composed as much at a board meeting as a keyboard. It's got vim and, in supporting performances by Felicia Finley and especially the appealing Matthew Saldivar, bona fide comic vigor. Yet a premise this flimsy -- one asking for your Joblike forbearance of jokey references to the 1980s -- requires two crucial elements this show does not have: a corker of a score, and a leading man and lady who can do something like spontaneously combust.

Stephen Lynch and Laura Benanti, as Jersey boy and girl in this standard-issue story of boy-meets-girl, are made for musicals, but not for each other. Lynch, a comedian by trade, is all nervous standup energy, and Benanti, a nifty Cinderella in the 2002 Broadway revival of "Into the Woods," is shown to better advantage in parts with an undercoat of steel. These kids don't mix naturally. He's overeager to please, and she seems hardly eager at all.

A more fundamental deficit, however, is the desperate lengths to which director John Rando and book writers Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy go to stir up nostalgia for the 1980s, the not particularly evocative period in which the musical takes place. Although the show mercifully sidesteps the Challenger disaster and Iran-contra, it does reacquaint us with the styling of mullets, the exhibitionism of Madonna and the shoes of Imelda Marcos. ("Flashdance" is invoked not once but twice.) The facile '80s gags go on and on until the final scene, by which time you might feel as if you have seriously OD'd. As in over-decaded.

"The Wedding Singer" is set in Ridgefield, N.J., one of those old, close-in suburbs where lawn flamingos go to die. It's in the depiction of this tarnished Eden-with-driveways that the musical is on its most solid ground. Scenic designer Scott Pask paints the horizon of Bergen County as a generic, fading subdivision, its shabby architectural crown a municipal water tower. Another scene wittily evokes one of those rotating hotel-penthouse restaurants, this one hinting tantalizingly at the industrial splendor that is Greater Newark.

The show begins, vibrantly, at a wedding at which Lynch's Robbie Hart is the lead singer, accompanied by his band mates, played by Saldivar and, wearing a Boy George getup, Kevin Cahoon. The songwriting team of Beguelin and Matthew Sklar put their best work up front, in the up-tempo opening number, "It's Your Wedding Day," featuring spunky choreography by Rob Ashford. (Sklar and Beguelin are also the authors of "The Rhythm Club," a musical that had a premiere at Signature Theatre in 2000.)

We're entertained early on, too, by funny secondary characters. Saldivar's schlubby Sammy -- a guy you instantly recognize as the good-natured loser whose best subject in high school was study hall -- is a dead-on achievement. It is so true to life and the period that you could imagine yourself in a dank rec room, watching "Laverne & Shirley" with him. Finley, as a wild rocker girl who leaves Robbie at the altar, offers another crackling performance, especially in her musical rendition of her Dear John letter.

Saldivar also leads a bar full of schlemiels through an amusing salute to sexual rejection in Act II. But otherwise, the assorted machinations and production numbers -- set in malls and clubs and the office of the Wall Street creep (Richard H. Blake) who's betrothed to Benanti's Julia -- are forgettable or too reminiscent of tired stuff from other shows.

Worse are interludes in Las Vegas featuring several cast members dressed as such '80s touchstones as Billy Idol and Ronald Reagan. And since rap is now as much a required element on the musical stage as the triple axel is on the ice, senior citizen Rita Gardner -- the original Girl in "The Fantasticks" -- has to perform a godawful number with Cahoon as if they were members of Run-DMC.

Long after inspiration ceases, the band plays on in "The Wedding Singer." The show might acquire a cachet, as a kind of safe family fallback. But no one has to feel much urgency about getting to it. Soon, another show very much like it is bound to arrive.

Plans were announced this week, in fact, for a forthcoming musical version of "Legally Blonde." And if that one doesn't work, well, just stay up to date with what's flying off the shelves at Blockbuster.

The Wedding Singer , music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, book by Beguelin and Tim Herlihy. Directed by John Rando. Sets, Scott Pask; costumes, Gregory Gale; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Peter Hylenski; orchestrations, Irwin Fisch; music coordinator, John Miller. With Amy Spanger. About 2 1/2 hours. At Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 W. 45th St., New York. Call 800-432-7250 or visit http://www.telecharge.com .

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