Rooms a rock romance
nytheatre.com review by Russell M. Kaplan
March 12, 2009
Ever since rock music was introduced to the musical theatre vocabulary, composers have used it to tell BIG stories about communal experiences. But rock has done far more for society by reaching people on an intimate level—who doesn't remember being an angsty 14-year-old holed up in their room and scrutinizing lyrics, or baring their soul to a crush through a deeply meaningful mix tape? Rooms: A Rock Romance reflects this more personal relationship with rock and roll—it's a modest show with a big sound that's only concerned with two people's dreams and relationships. While Hair and Rent sell us big ideas with the grandiosity of a stadium rock show, Rooms is the theatrical equivalent of reading over your old teenage diary: deeply personal, achingly earnest, and not quite as profound as you though at the time. And while you already know the ending, you're clearly gonna stick with it the whole way.
Set in Glasgow between 1977 and 1980, Rooms follows the young working-class songwriting team of fame-hungry lyricist Monica and cripplingly shy guitarist Ian. Their first collaboration—a subversive ditty commissioned for a local girl's Bat Mitzvah—is a hilarious disaster, but they find a strong shared muse and decide to set off for London (and later New York) to ride the new punk rock craze straight to the top. A record deal is made, fame is achieved, romance is kindled, the drinking gets out of control, etc.
Familiar stuff, sure. Fortunately it's familiar for the right reasons. Songwriter Paul Scott Goodman and co-bookwriter (and wife) Miriam Gordon have put a lot of their own selves into the material, and the characters feel authentic for their archetypes. The lyrics bounce between catchy hooks and more linear conversational passages, which won't knock you out with wit, but tell the story clearly without trying too hard. Musically, Goodman's songs are more informed by commercial '70s arena rock than by stick-it-to-the-man punk...but that's probably all the grit that musical theatre audiences will want anyway. Regardless of its "punk authenticity," the score is solid and occasionally memorable, particularly Monica's powerful "Bring the Future Faster" and Ian's "Fear of Flying." The play only starts to lose focus in the second half, when the dialogue gives way entirely to sung-through material, which is simply not as strong.
The material is nicely elevated by its interpreters, who treat the story and characters with respect and show nice restraint. Director Scott Schwartz tells the story with admirable minimalism, trusting two chairs, a mobile door, and his actors to handle everything. Doug Kreeger makes Ian into a fully engaging introvert, and is fully convincing as someone far more comfortable with his guitar than with other people. Leslie Kritzer brings a nice buoyancy to her role, although next to Kreeger it's pretty obvious she's a Broadway belter in punk's clothing. Their chemistry is decent, even if it does fall short of real sparks.
Rooms is a show of humble goals that manages to achieve most of them, not the least of which is creating a more-or-less complete evening of musical theatre with a cast of two and a minimum of spectacle. Actually, in this day and age, that's a pretty big one. It may not offer any epiphanies or deserve status as a classic, but as a strong showcase for rock-minded singer-actors, and a dream come true for budget-conscious producers, it could secure a future in small regional theaters for a good long while.