Take On Me (adoption, addiction, and a-ha)
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
August 11, 2006
I don't know if the powers that be have invented a word to properly describe the magnitude of actor-writer Christine Simpson's reverence for the Scandinavian pop trio a-ha. But, I do know that she will make anyone who sees her delightful new one-woman show, Take On Me, a believer in their artistry and genius. That's right: I said "a-ha," "artistry," and "genius" all in the same sentence. You may think of the group as only a one-hit wonder from the 1980s, but Simpson is out to clear their good name. Delivering a heartfelt treatise on the band's virtues, she makes a convincing argument for their induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.
But, there's more to Take On Me than just a-ha. Simpson also covers her ambivalent feelings about being adopted (she's Korean), her volatile relationship with her mother, her humorously traumatic suburban adolescence, and her heroin addiction (which she has, thankfully, long since kicked). It's a testament to Simpson's skill both as a writer and a performer that she brings these threads together effortlessly, connecting them all with her love of a band whose journey matches her own.
The parallels between author and subject are plentiful: she was born in 1973, the same year the band's future members first started dreaming of making music; her introduction to pop music coincided with a-ha's first and biggest U.S. single, "Take on Me"; subsequent years found both Simpson and the band struggling to form an identity; in 1996, following a grad school downturn, Simpson practically drops out of society because of her growing addiction as a-ha decides to "take a break." In the end, of course, both stage rousing comebacks. Considering all of their coincidentally shared history, it's easy to see why Simpson has remained devoted to her idols through high and low.
In between, Simpson gives us a look at her Long Island upbringing, complete with teased, frizzy hair ("I turned sixteen looking like a Thai prostitute."), and a mother with a martyr complex. She admits that "trying to swim upstream in the chum that was high school" proved difficult because of her race and her geekiness: for most of her white, privileged classmates, "casual indifference to everything means survival."
But, throughout her tribulations, Simpson is comforted by a-ha. She tells us about the decorative collage of press photos that adorns her bedroom (vividly brought to life by video designers Jesse Jou, John Ko, and Tim Schwartz), her obsession with the Roland SH-101 synthesizer, and gives detailed dissertations on the band's albums, complete with audio samples (at one point, she hilariously describes a-ha's second album, Scoundrel Days, as "their Empire Strikes Back"). As the years go by, and the band's popularity fades, Simpson stands by them even when she can't "hear my a-ha in the new album."
Take On Me isn't completely without its flaws. Simpson doesn't always speak loud enough to be heard, and she gets vague about the timeline and details of her heroin habit. Otherwise, she and director Jou have created an entertaining and fun show that deserves a life beyond FringeNYC.