The Wedding Singer
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 3, 2006
The Wedding Singer is my favorite musical of the season; it's a feel-good, crowd-pleasing hit. Sweet-natured, silly, romantic, and tuneful, it's the kind of show that takes you away from your everyday for a couple of hours and makes you grin and grin—and the grin stays with you after the curtain comes down. It's also deceptively skillful, featuring expert staging and production design and a top-notch cast who seem to be having as good a time entertaining us as we're having being entertained. It might even be something of an innovation in musical theatre craft; I'll talk more about that a little later.
It's based, as you probably know or have guessed, on Adam Sandler's hit movie comedy of the same name. It's about a young man named Robbie Hart who is the lead singer of a band called Simply Wed (that's the first of oodles of '80s in-jokes in this thing; The Wedding Singer takes place in 1985 in Ridgefield, New Jersey). Though Robbie and his bandmates—the dim but genial Sammy and the lovable but sexually ambiguous George—aspire in their dreams to rock star success, they've gotten used to earning their living here in the suburbs playing at weddings; as Robbie tells us in the show's dynamic opening number, "Love is what I do."
Of course, that doesn't mean that Robbie's own love life is going so well, and indeed by Scene 4, which takes place at Robbie's wedding, we learn that his fiancée Linda has stood him up at the altar. Robbie goes into a deep funk (which he takes out on the next wedding party he performs for, in the hilariously raucous number "Casualty of Love"). He also meets a pretty young waitress named Julia at the catering hall, with whom he falls in love at first sight (we know this because heavenly music starts to play as soon as they lock eyes, but it takes the two of them most of the show to figure it out). The outcome is never in doubt, though the fact that Julia has herself just gotten engaged to a hot-shot Wall Street stockbroker-type named Glen (and the information, available to us in the playbill, that Linda will be returning in Act Two singing a song called "Let Me Come Home") indicate that The Wedding Singer is going to be a wild ride through a series of romantic complications.
The trip is full of surprises (even if you've seen the film, I'm told); and it's loaded with charm and humor and '80s nostalgia. Regarding the latter, there are references to most of the popular music artists of that decade, everybody from Madonna to Cyndi Lauper to Billy Joel (whose anthemic "We Didn't Start the Fire" is paid tribute in the Act Two opener "All About the Green") to Michael Jackson (whose glittery glove appears, inexplicably, on Sammy's hand at one point).
Sammy has a love interest, by the way—Julia's (self-described) slutty cousin Holly; their on-again/off-again affair forms the show's main comic subplot (it's the kind of relationship where they wear matching "I'm with Stupid" t-shirts). Robbie has a grandmother, Rosie, who provides additional comic relief. And the sequences throughout the show all have a cheerful, goofy wit, as when the band plays at a bar mitzvah as a change of pace:
There's a gift from every guest
Today you are a man
The cocktail franks have all been blessed
Today you are a man
Julia sings a duet with Robbie while he's hiding out in a dumpster; Robbie and his bandmates sing and dance with a bartender and a bum in a rousing number called "Single"; and the finale, whose precise nature should not be given away, involves a variety of celebrity impersonators at the White House Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas. It all zips by so fleetly and happily that you don't have time to think about how ridiculous most of it is. You just sit back and relax and let The Wedding Singer do its giddy, zany magic on you.
Credit Matthew Sklar (music), Chad Beguelin (book and lyrics), Tim Herlihy (book), and John Rando (director) for this; they've tuned their show so finely that none of its considerable craft shows; they make one of the hardest things to do in the theatre—i.e., creating an original musical—look really easy. They have also accomplished something that I'm not sure has been successfully done before: The Wedding Singer is the first original musical I know of that incorporates the popular music styles of my generation seamlessly within the traditional musical comedy format. This is a show that Baby Boom/Gen X cuspies can love without compromise.
Rob Ashford's choreography is funny and exciting and absolutely invaluable: right from the first moments of the show, when a tuxedoed groom flips his begowned bride over his head in a high-octane dance sequence ("It's Your Wedding Day"), the rules of engagement for the show are impeccably delineated. (The rules are: there are no rules! This isn't reality, it's just fun. Have a blast.)
Gregory Gale, the show's witty costume designer, gets the delicious task of designing not one but four over-the-top retro wedding parties, and he supplies gown after gown for bride and bridesmaids that bespeak the delectability of that particular assignment; his contributions to the rest of the show are equally gawdy and senstaional. Scott Pask's sets are colorful and versatile, zooming on and off the stage with remarkable speed and seemingly a mind of their own; they are splendidly simpatico with Rando and Ashford's vision of the piece, giving them the space they need to move their actors and dancers. Other production elements (Brian MacDevitt's lighting, Peter Hylenski's sound, Joe Dulude II's makeup, and David Brian Brown's hair) do their jobs admirably as well.
The Wedding Singer's onstage talent is just as terrific as its backstage team. Laura Benanti, as Julia, is enchanting, delivering the star performance she was born to; I've seen pretty much everything this young lady has done in the theatre, and she's never been better. My only quibble is that she doesn't quite have enough to do. Rita Gardner is a hoot as Rosie, while Matthew Sandivar and Kevin Cahoon are hilarious and lovable as Robbie's bandmates (Sammy and George, respectively). Felicia Finley emits sparks in both of her numbers as the hopelessly shallow Linda, while Richard H. Blake is Michael Douglas-smooth as the closest thing to a villain in the show, Julia's rich boyfriend Glen.
Amy Spanger deserves her own paragraph for another breakout performance, as Holly. She leads the company in the show's two big dance numbers, "Saturday Night in the City" and "Right in Front of Your Eyes" and she turns both into bona fide show-stoppers thanks to her boundless sex appeal, energy, and fancy footwork.
At the center of it all is Stephen Lynch in an appealing star turn as Robbie. He's as likable a leading man as you can hope for, plus he can sing, dance, clown, and woo with the best of 'em.
Sheer fun, that's what it amounts to: I had a ball at The Wedding Singer, and I'm betting you probably will too.
And I didn't even tell you about the revolving restaurant scene, or the musical number in the shopping mall, or the silly breakdance that Rosie and George do at her 50th anniversary party. (Yes, Rosie breakdances.)
This is a pleasure you don't have to feel guilty about: check it out.