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BWW Reviews: THE WEDDING SINGER Brings Nostalgic Fun to CLO

I know The Wedding Singer like the back of my hand. I primarily know the show through my hands, in fact, because I have played keyboards in four separate productions of the show. That said, seeing the show from the audience and not the orchestra pit is always a plus, and director/choreographer Barry Ivan's production brought a pleasantly self-deprecating, non-derivative sense of humor that invigorated a show that is currently somewhat overdone in regional and community theatres.

For those of you who have both avoided the show and the ubiquitous TBS airings of the Adam Sandler star vehicle, The Wedding Singer tells the story of singer-songwriter Robbie Hart (J. Michael Zygo), a wedding band leader in 1980s New Jersey. Robbie's claim to fame is his knack for writing original songs to celebrate the special day for his clients. But when his metalhead fiancee Linda (Jackie Burns) dumps him, Robbie spirals into a drunken, self-loathing depression, and turns his musical talent to evil instead. After his bitter songs terrorize a wedding and a bar mitzvah, catering hall waitress Julia Sullivan (Jenna Ushkowitz) decides to rescue her new friend Robbie from his depression. Sparks fly- this is a romantic comedy, after all. Too bad Julia has a rich, violent fiancee of her own: Wall Street whiz Glen Guglia (Brandon Andrus).

The central duo of Robbie and Julia can make or break The Wedding Singer. If played too broad, they become cartoons- or worse, impressions of the film cast- which makes them unlikeable and indistinguishable from the more grotesque supporting roles. Luckily, the CLO has assembled a great team. As Robbie Hart, J. Michael Zygo is as far from Adam Sandler as you can get. His portrayal of the lovable loser archetype is underplayed and surprisingly subtle for a show that sometimes verges on silliness. While most actors turn the wedding meltdown in Act 1 into an over the top, screaming rant, Zygo's decision to underplay it until the very last minute makes it hilarious and almost chilling- this is the darkest Robbie Hart we've ever seen in Pittsburgh. Zygo's natural physicality sets him apart from the Adam Sandler/Stephen Lynch molds: resembling the love child of Matthew Broderick and Steve Buscemi, there is an affable, good-natured weirdness about his Robbie, combined with a surprising knack for physical comedy. The moments when Robbie takes a pratfall into a dumpster, falls off the bed, or is suckerpunched are throwaway bits in the hands of a lesser actor, but Zygo all but received a standing ovation after the brief fight scene. His singing voice fits Eighties pop and rock better than Sandler's ever did, and the oddball sincerity of his portrayal lends unexpected sweetness to the climactic "Grow Old With You" ballad without reducing it to a series of cutesy punch lines.

Opposite Zygo's Robbie is his perfect match, Jenna Ushkowitz. After six seasons of playing GLEE's adorable sad-sack, the perpetual also-ran Tina Cohen-Chang, Ushkowitz is a natural to take on a similar character like Julia Sullivan, waiting and waiting for her happy moment. Just as Zygo played his role less broadly than Stephen Lynch did, Ushkowitz brings a similar groundedness to her Julia when compared to Laura Benanti's somewhat manic, kooky Julia. Additionally, her pure pop vocals match the style of the score better than Benanti's semi-legit Disney princess tone. Though the chemistry between Zygo and Ushkowitz takes a while to truly come together, they sizzle and crackle with goofball charm when they finally get a not-so-fraught moment of happiness together.

As Robbie's bandmate Sammy, Brandon Espinoza comes close to stealing the show, bringing masterful comic timing and awesomely terrible Eighties dancing to his various showcase scenes. Espinoza is supported by Greg Kamp and Jackie Burns as Boy George wannabe George and ex-groupie Linda, respectively. Though both bring great voices and a knack for comedy to their roles, both are somewhat limited by the one-note characters they portray: soon as you see George, or hear Linda singing like Lita Ford, that's the joke. Repeat for the rest of their appearances onstage. Thankfully, Kirsten Scott gets much more to do, playing the sweetheart sexpot Holly with a touch of Cyndi Lauper wackiness to offset the Madonna sultriness. Closing the love triangle is Brandon Andrus, who brings more menace than usual to the role of rich philanderer Glen.

The couple behind me at the show didn't seem to appreciate the production, though they seemed to be reading more into it than there was to read. "What is the point of this show?" one complained to the other. "What is it trying to accomplish?" "It just doesn't have anything to SAY," the woman replied to her husband. I wanted to turn around and say, "Who says it has to say anything?" It's a romantic comedy, people- one of the rare ones where the romance and the comedy are equally prevalent. The music is fun, the cast is great, and the show does a great job, like the original Grease, of exaggerating but not idealizing how odd the Eighties were. If you're looking for love in all the wrong places, maybe you ought to look at The Benedum, but hurry- like McRib, this show is only available for a limited time.

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From This Author Greg Kerestan