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BWW Review: World Premiere of R. Eric Thomas' BACKING TRACK at Arden Theatre Company

Backing Track is now playing on the Arcadia Stage at Arden Theatre Company through April 10th.

BWW Review: World Premiere of R. Eric Thomas' BACKING TRACK at Arden Theatre Company

Arden Theatre Company, which returned to the stage this past January with a triumphant production of A Streetcar Named Desire, is back with the world premiere of R. Eric Thomas' Backing Track. Thomas is a playwright whose career is on the up and up-he has two other plays premiering in the coming months: The Folks at Home at Baltimore Center Stage, and Crying on Television at Everyman Theatre. Backing Track is now playing on the Arcadia Stage at Arden Theatre Company through April 10th.

A comedic play with music, Backing Track takes place during what feels like an entire lifetime ago-mid-Trump presidency 2018. The play centers on Avery (Brenson Thomas), a gay "mid-to-late-early-thirties" self-described "triple-threat" cruise ship singer and karaoke aficionado, who like so many millennials, is struggling to build meaningful connections with the people around him. He has recently lost his mother, Miriam, and has moved back into his childhood home with his other mother, Mel (Melanye Finister). Between cruise ship gigs he spends time scrolling through Grindr, with no real intention of ever meeting up with these hunky headless torsos (whose pictures and messages are displayed cleverly through Scenic Design by Chris Haig and Projection Designer by Taj Rauch). Avery's mother, Mel, is struggling to deal with the death of her wife and resists any kind of change within her home. She leaves the plastic coverings in the windows even in the heat of summer because her wife always put them up, complains when her daughter Jessica (Danielle Lenee), turns on the air conditioning, and makes a fuss when her hipster, technology-buff son in law Rene (Joseph Ahmed) installs an Alexa-like smart device in the house.

Mel is also dealing with her pesky neighbors, Esther (Bi Jean Ngo) who has taken issue with the solar panels in Mel's front yard (installed by Rene, naturally), and Esther's brother Abraham (Carl Hsu) who is renting out homes as Airbnbs. In misguided ways, both are passionate about trying to bring the community together, even as their actions contribute to the gentrification of the neighborhood.

Backing Track, or what could also be called A Love Letter to Titanic and Celine Dion, is lighthearted, warm, and funny, while tackling topics about our interpersonal relationships, and our country at large, that are only becoming more and more prevalent. Brenson Thomas is wonderful as Avery. You are drawn to his humor and warmth immediately and can't help but root for his happiness. Melanye Finister is equally as wonderful and sympathetic as Mel, and Carl Hsu as Mel's neighbor/Avery's love interest Abraham is instantly lovable and funny.

There are some elements of the play that work better than others. For instance, the plot point of Jessica and Rene moving to Canada as a result the 2016 election. While in 2016 it certainly felt like every liberal millennial was, with semi-seriousness, discussing moving to our neighboring country to escape the political climate, it feels a little dated and over-dramatic here, considering everything that we've been through in the last two years. But to be fair to R. Eric Thomas, who could have predicted then what we would all go through in the years since the 2016 election?

There are also a few storytelling moments in the play where the intention is clear, but the execution is slightly less so. Avery uses his love of karaoke throughout the play to connect to the audience, his family, and to center himself when he feels lost. There are only two moments in the play, while he's in his karaoke headspace, where he has imaginary conversations with the people in his life to work out his problems. R. Eric Thomas' dabble into this creative choice feels slightly inconsistent with the rest of the storytelling and dialogue, which happens in real-time.

But on the whole, Backing Track neatly and satisfyingly wraps up each and every storyline it begins, leaving no loose ends. It also elicits frequent and genuine laughs from the audience.

Funny that a play set in 2018 about changing environments and lack of human connection should feel all the more relevant in 2022. Walking out of the Arden, I felt happy to know that these characters found a sense of self, community, purpose, and family. What Backing Track leaves you with, is the hope that we can all find that as well.


Tickets for Backing Track are now available for purchase online at ardentheatre.org.

Photo credit: Wide Eyed Studios


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