BWW REVIEWS: Why We Love The '80s: THE WEDDING SINGER at The Roxy Regional Theatre

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There are so many starmaking turns-and some wonderfully engaging and endearing antics-onstage at Clarksville's Roxy Regional Theater in the company's revival of The Wedding Singer, that you cannot help but become a fan of the show, even if you've never seen the movie that inspired the onstage musical comedy. Led by Josh Bernaski, in a role tailor made for his estimable talents, and Ashley Laverty, who delivers a performance that is winsome and lovely (and her infectious smile could brighten the darkest of days), director Tom Thayer's cast deliver a performance that will fairly leave you dancing your way out of the theater.

The story by Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy is slight-a wedding singer, naturally, is heartbroken when his skanky whore of a girlfriend stands him up at the altar and he then falls in love with a waitress at the banquet hall where they both work, setting up the show's premise-and the songs, by Matthew Sklar and Beguelin, might sound like homogenized retreads of some of the 1980s tunes you surreptitiously hide from your hipster friends on your iPod, but there's something about the show that quite simply works!

Set in New Jersey in the salad days before the world came to know the Garden State primarily because of the televised adventures of Snooki, J-Woww and The Situation, The Wedding Singer is likely to enjoy bigger acclaim in regional theaters than it did in its brief Broadway run and the subsequent national tours, because it has charm to spare. The characters tend to be somewhat stereotypical, and they clearly aren't fully fleshed out in Beguelin and Herlihy's book (let's face it, that would probably suck the comedy out of our beloved "musical comedy," anyway), but they are nonetheless affectionately drawn.

Thayer's direction of the piece keeps his actors moving at a good pace, revealing the story's plotline in a way that works well for today's audiences who come to the theatre short attention spans intact. The choreography, credited to Thayer and Jessica Davidson, is quite possibly the best we've seen at The Roxy in many seasons, injecting some high-flying energy into the nostalgia-fueled trip down memory lane to 1986. Adam Kurtz's lighting and sound design even further sets the period feel for the piece-so much so that you might think you've had one too many drinks by show's end. And, as we all know, nothing says the mid-1980s better than feeling like you've indulged yourself too much.

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Bernaski is ideally cast as the show's titular lead, Robbie Hart, the wedding singer with a big smile and even bigger heart. Bernaski invests in Robbie some much needed vulnerability that makes him far more believable than he is written. You never suspect for even the briefest of moments that Bernaski isn't fully committed to his character and he delivers a performance that leaves you wanting to see more from him-the Cher-esque wig notwithstanding.

As Julia, Ashley Laverty matches her onstage partner with a performance fairly dripping with sincerity and believability-thus their duets ("Awesome," the ridiculously titled "Come Out of the Dumpster," which is far sweeter than you could imagine, and "Grow Old With You") take on an unexpected tenderness and emotional appeal. Laverty's obvious chemistry with Bernaski keeps your attention drawn to them during the course of the plot's development.

The supporting cast is virtually overflowing with talent: Rob Rodems (as Robbie's bandmate Sammy, who has left his job at Orange Julius), Ryan Bowie (as the hair-whipping George, the effeminate doppelganger for Culture Club's frontman Boy George) and Regan Featherstone (playing Julia's prick of a fiancé, Glenn Gulia, and showing off why he defines the term "triple threat" in the process) are wonderful in their various roles, showing off their versatility with ease and infusing the show with their focused performances.

But, truth be told, the men-as good as they are-just can't hold a candle to the women in the ensemble who snatch the show right out from under them. Sara Fetgatter is wonderfully skanky as Linda, the woman who broke Robbie's heart when she dumped him at the altar, and she makes the most of her rather limited time onstage to create a memorable character that you absolutely love to hate, even if you feel the need to go the free clinic afterwards.

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And Kaitlin Doughty, who played the same role in the 2009-10 national tour of The Wedding Singer, claims the stage of The Roxy as her very own with her perfectly drawn portrayal of Holly, Julia's hot-to-trot (and sexy as hell) cousin and co-worker. As good as the whole ensemble is (and they are all terrific, let me say that again), Doughty claims the crown as the most watchable, more entertaining person to take the stage. She was my favorite-there I said it!-and, hell, I'd drink the bathwater of Bernaski, Laverty, Rodems, Bowie, Featherstone and Fetgatter; so it should be quite clear just how good Doughty is…

Jama Bowen is delightfully droll as Robbie's rapping grandmother Rosie, smartly playing her role with the right amount of old lady chutzpah, and as always, it's good to see Leslie Greene in anything on The Roxy stage (to my way of thinking, Greene is as vital to the theater's success as Thayer and artistic director John McDonald).

The show's scenic design is fun and evocative of the '80s, the costumes are fantastically over the top recreations of the fashions (and I use that term very loosely) that we actually wore back then and there are enough wigs used in the production to keep Eva Gabor and Raquel Welch in business for years to come (they still make wigs, don't they?).

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the hysterically funny group of "impersonators" who make their appearance in the show's Las Vegas scenes. Frankly, it's worth the price of a ticket to see Humberto Figueroa as Mr. T, Erin Keas as an ersatz Tina Turner, Sean Ormond as a Billy Idol wannabe and the lovely Hannah Church as "fake Cyndi Lauper," but when you have the lagniappe of Travis Kendrick as "fake Imelda Marcos"- well, it's just too much over-the-top fun to miss!

But you better hurry: The Wedding Singer continues only through Saturday night and I'm just sorry I didn't make it to Clarksville earlier in the show's run.

The Wedding Singer. Book by Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy. Music by Matthew Sklar. Lyrics by Chad Beguelin. Directed by Tom Thayer. Choreographed by Jessica Davidson and Tom Thayer. Presented by The Roxy Regional Theatre, Clarksville. Through June 23. For information, call (615) 645-7699; for further details about the rest of the season, go to www.roxyregionaltheatre.org.

photo of Kaitlin Doughty by Bill Larson/Clarksville Online

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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