BWW Review: Go Back to the 1980s With THE WEDDING SINGER at Chaffin's Barn
Pineiro, Rankin, Bissell and Cahill Lead Ensemble in Engaging Reed-Directed Show
Somewhere among the cards and letters, photographs and souvenirs from my misspent youth is a picture (circa 1978) of me clad in a powder blue tuxedo, with a ruffled-front shirt edged in the same hue, all capped off by an impossibly wide bow tie to match - my costume to serve as a groomsman in the wedding of two friends. That image has been prominent in my mind for the past 12 hours after experiencing déjà vu of a particular sort, thanks to a rousing, rollicking and downright rocking production of The Wedding Singer, the latest offering at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, which opened last night and continues through October 19 at the venerable Nashville venue.
Based on the 1998 film of the same name that starred Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore (which I've never seen because, well, Adam Sandler), the musical centers on the character of Robbie Hart, an affable young man who leads a band which performs primarily at wedding receptions, with a bar mitzvah thrown into the mix every so often, at a banquet/reception hall in New Jersey sometime during the 1980s (not long after my fellow groomsmen and I appeared dressed in our powder blue tuxes - interesting fact: the marriage didn't last as long as my rental agreement on the polyester suit did). Nominated for the 2006 Tony Award for best musical (losing out to Jersey Boys, the jukebox musical about Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons), The Wedding Singer features music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, with a book by Beguelin and Tim Herlihy, the man who wrote the screenplay for the original movie.
The Sklar-Beguelin score is rather infectious in a 1980s pop music sort of way and the writers should be commended for crafting a musical of original tunes, albeit one that sounds like ersatz 1980s hits, rather than relying on a cavalcade of hits songs of the era (which would be the very definition of "jukebox musical"). None of the show's songs are hits outside of the context of the musical, but you'll be hard pressed not to dance along in your seats during director/choreographer/co-star Curtis Reed's spirited, high-energy production.
How he does it - everything, that is - remains a mystery, but somehow Reed manages to do it all and he succeeds beyond all expectations with this engaging production that is as entertaining as anything you will ever see on a local stage. With a top-flight cast, led by Alex Pineiro, Natalie Rankin, Daniel Bissell and Chloe Cahill (all of whom could be the very actors the writers were thinking of while they created The Wedding Singer), the production offers up one terrific package: it sounds good, it looks good, it probably even smells good (although, granted, those performers are working awfully hard and expending a great deal of sweat in the process - and, let's be frank, industrial vats full of Paco Rabanne and Charlie can only do so much) - so you'll want to pony up for tickets before they're all gone and experience the show for yourself instead of taking my word for it.
The hair is big, the shoulder pads are massive and the taste level is questionable, but make no mistake about it: Chaffin's Barn's The Wedding Singer is like boarding a time machine and being whisked away to a time in which "Just Say No," Orange Julius and over-teased hair were de rigueur and the "Me Decade" was just building up a head of steam to propel us toward the 1990s. Reed and his creative team - which includes costuemrs Miriam Creighton and Emily Irene Peck, lighting designer Daniel DeVault, props designers Joy Tilley Perryman, Annie Magan, Jenny Norris and Tammie Whited, technical director Robin Lawshe and stage managers Catherine Wynne Reeves and Alexis LaVon - very adroitly and imaginatively transform the Barn into a 1980s banquet hall and the fun starts almost before you realize it as various characters pop in to celebrate the nuptials of the newly wed Mr. and Mrs. Harold Fonda, played with tongue-in-cheek charm by Tyler Inabinette and Larren Woodward (both making their Chaffin's Barn debuts). With attention to detail, underscored by obvious affection for the time period in which the show is set, Reed and his team of theatrical magicians create a wedding picture-perfect world that permeates the atmosphere long past the final curtain.
Alex Pineiro is perfectly cast as Robbie, oozing sincere charm and an almost guileless personality as he brings his character to life with stage presence to spare. Paired with the equally impressive Rankin as Julia, a waitress at the banquet hall who quickly becomes more important to him (the plot progresses quickly, so pay attention and keep your physical extremities inside the ride at all times, please). Together, Pineiro and Rankin exhibit strong onstage chemistry and their scenes together boast an authenticity that makes their interactions sweeter and more appealing - the fact they both sing their hearts out is like icing on the top of a very delicious wedding cake.
Daniel Bissell, as Robbie's arrogant bandmate Sammy, has never been better. He so easily morphs into the role of the boastful, rather arrogant, but kind-hearted Sammy that it's difficult to see where Daniel ends and Sammy begins, and he captures the particular brand of 1980s angst that makes the production of The Wedding Singer so accessible and so damn much fun. Cahill, as Julia's best friend/cousin and co-worker, is sexy, bold and flashy and she delivers a performance that's worthy of every honorific you can come up with, culminating her performance with a stunning rendition of "Right In Front of Your Eyes" that's cleverly staged by Reed, in which she is joined by Bissell for added emphasis and star power.
Leave it to a quartet of actors to nearly walk away with the whole freaking production - lock, stock, barrel and magical floating stage - with supporting performances that are pitch-perfect. Nico Rion completes Robbie's bad as the effete and Boy George-inspired "George," delivering a flamboyant portrayal that rings true of the era; Matt Moran is all smarmy charm as Julia's good-for-nothing fiancé, Glenn Gulia, leading "All About The Green" with unparalleled ease; Jenny Norris stops the show with an electrifying performance as Linda, the ex-fiancee of Robbie who jilts him at the altar, showing off enough sass and sex appeal to fuel dozens of other similar productions - "Let Me Come Home" is terrific; and Vicki White, virtually unrecognizable beneath a silver wig and sporting the mother of all windsuits, steals the show away from everyone else as Robbie's loving grandmother, Rosie. To put it simply, White takes a role that could be considered stereotypical and gratuitous and makes it her very own.
Reed very smartly surrounds his leading players and their secondary compatriots with an ensemble whom he calls upon to bring the show to life with vivid intensity and no-holds-barred showbiz pizazz. In addition to the aforementioned Inabinette and Woodward, the ensemble also features Bethanie Lyon, Tosha Marie, Kathleen Mitchell, Seth Bennett, Seth Brown, Austin Jeffrey Smith, Kaleb Frey and Aubrey Guice who shine in plethora of roles ranging from every type of stereotypical bridezilla, bumbling groom and inept wedding party member, as well as various and sundry celebrity impersonators (ranging from Smith's Billy Idol to Marie's Tina Turner, from Lyon's Nancy Reagan to Brown's Cher) when the action moves west for some quickie Vegas nuptials.
The Wedding Singer. Book by Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy. Music by Matthew Sklar. Lyrics by Chad Beguelin. Directed and choreographed by Curtis Reed. Presented by Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, Nashville. Through October 19. For details, go to www.chaffinsbarntheatre.com or call (615) 646-9977. Running time: 3 hours (with one 20-minute intermission).