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Review: Party Hearty Like It's 1985 with THE WEDDING SINGER at the Carrollwood Players

A Ton of 80's Fun!

Review: Party Hearty Like It's 1985 with THE WEDDING SINGER at the Carrollwood Players

"The 70's are dead and gone; the 80's are going to be something wonderfully new and different..." --Samantha (Valerie Perrine) in Can't Stop the Music

"I call it the 'every other decade' theory. The 50's were boring. The 60's rocked. The 70's, my God, they obviously suck. So maybe the 80's will be like, radical. I figure we'll be in our 20's and hey, it can't get any worse..." --Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi) in Dazed and Confused

God, how we miss the 1980's! Those of us old enough to experience that decade didn't look at it with fondness at the time, with AIDS, homelessness, and Wall Street scandals proliferating. But in today's world--with extreme tribal divides in our culture, where we are no longer shocked at school shootings, where economic disasters and political failures abound, all exacerbated by social media---we can't help but look back at the world forty years ago and remember simpler times. It was the era when we could unapologetically watch "The Cosby Show" without feeling uncomfortably icky, or when Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" didn't have a second meaning that was profoundly disturbing. We wore our parachute pants, drank our New Coke, played with our Cabbage Patch Dolls, worked out to Jane Fonda exercise videos, failed to master the Rubik's Cube, danced to Soft Cell and Prince's latest hits, and dreamed of a better life by watching "Dynasty" and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" on our TV screens. Some people refer to that decade as the Reagan Years; I call it the Kajagoogoo Era. And it was a glorious time to be alive.

THE WEDDING SINGER is a Big Hair musical celebration of those days, and it's currently playing at the Carrollwood Players until Sunday, July 3rd. Watching this fun retro-look at the 1980's, I wondered how many in the young cast were even alive during that decade.

Based on the famed Adam Sandler movie, THE WEDDING SINGER (music by Matthew Sklar; lyrics by Chad Beguelin, with the book by Beguelin and Tim Herlihy) takes place smack-dab in the center of the Decade of Greed. It's 1985 in New Jersey, and Robbie Hart is a wedding singer who, during his own wedding ceremony, gets stood up by his bride, the "psycho" Lisa. At the same time, a waitress, Julia, is getting ready for her own wedded bliss to a Wall Street broker and a cad in Miami Vice duds, Glen. But Robbie and Julia have a natural attraction to each other; will they be able to carry through with their own romance and, ultimately their own wedding? Add to this an oddball array of characters, including Robbie's bandmates, George and Sammy, the latter in Flock of Seagull hair; Holly a personality-plus waitress-friend of Julia's; and Robbie's mother, Rosie, who's like a missing character from "The Golden Girls." But you don't go to THE WEDDING SINGER for the characters or even the story, which is pretty basic; you go for the music, the party vibe, the 80's memories (how many allusions to that decade can you find?), and above all else, the sheer fun of it all. This isn't Ingmar Bergman; this is as deep as the shallow end of a swimming pool and happy to be there.

The Carrollwood Players production of THE WEDDING SINGER is packed with Fun (note the capital F), a fast-paced 1980's bacchanalia that's as pleasurable as watching a Duran Duran video premiere on MTV nearly forty years ago. Sure, it's a mess at times, but it's a good-natured mess with nary a bad thought in its head.

You don't have a WEDDING SINGER without a proper Robbie Hart, and the Carrollwood Players lucked out here with a newcomer to the area stages, Kyle Fisher. Mr. Fisher carries the show with a pleasant singing voice and distinct charm, with an abundance of humor and heart. You understand what Julia sees in him. In his manner and bursts of intensity, he sometimes reminds me of Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club. When he's basking in despair, singing "Somebody Kill Me," it sounds like a proto-grunge number. "I want to die!" he sings. "Put a bullet in my head!" (Is it my imagination, or does Mr. Fisher, with his long hair and semi-beard, resemble Nirvana/Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl in this specific moment?) At one point, he angrily screams at people, sounding like comedian Sam Kinison, and another where you swear it's Adam Sandler spewing the lines.

As the female lead, Julia, Rowan Gould is another find. She has a homespun naturalness, a sweet-natured everyday quality that is perfect for the part. Exuding decency, likability, with long brown hair bringing to mind Jennifer Garner mixed with Zooey Deschanel, she's sort of an Everywoman. Her splendid duet with Mr. Fisher on "If I Told You" reminded me of a famous 80's duet, "Almost Paradise" from Footloose. We find ourselves rooting for her, as well as Mr. Fisher, throughout the show, which is always a good thing.

Tristan J. Horta summons a Paul Rudd amiability as Sammy, the New Wave guitarist with wild Mike Score hair; he's a hoot. Mr. Horta's Sammy and Makayla Raines' colorful Holly make a great pair, warring one minute, falling for each other the next. As George, the band's keyboardist, Zach Angel Zayas has the best reactions onstage, always entertaining in a Horatio Sanz kind of way. (My only qualm is the character needs to fully commit to looking like they are actually playing the keyboards during the opening number.) And Becki Mallet has her audience-pleasing moments as Rosie, Robbie's mom, resembling Olympia Dukakis merged with Sally Jesse Raphael; you can't go wrong with an audience when you call your son's ex-fiancée a "skanky whore."

The ensemble has a lot of energy and I love that most of them are always in character onstage, even when it's not their line or when they are not the focus of the scene. The dancing, choreographed by Brenna Wood, is all over the place, but the cast's infectious energy makes up for any missteps and messiness. Enunciation was sometimes an issue, with some humorous lines getting lost in the shuffle, and vocals ranged from strong to shrieking. (Music direction is by Camile Sanabria.) That said, the song "Pop" stood out with the Pop the Question trio--The Poppers?--leading the way with tons of spunk.

The ensemble includes Kelly Thompson, Melissa Mastromarchi, Christina Eiginger, Jamie Morrison, Kristin Nelson, and Jacqueline Do. Kodi Ernewein and Dylan Fidler are always lively onstage, sparking their scenes with volumes of verve. Jay Thomas is quite funny as a drunk at the bar, but his Imposter Ronald Reagan doesn't sound anything like the former President. And Morenike Fashoro makes a perfect body-shaking exit as Imposter Tina Turner.

Fun as the cast is, and fine as Mr. Fisher and Ms. Gould are, this production of THE WEDDING SINGER belongs to the baddies.

In a variety of parts, especially Linda, Robbie's ex, Joanne Donovan comes into her own. Her Linda looks like Ann Wilson of Heart with a splash of Laura Branigan. Her first number, "A Note from Linda," uses Pachelbel's Canon in D, an overused theme throughout the 1980's; she sings the solo quite well. But it's her second big number in Act 2, "Let Me Come Home," where Ms. Donovan is able to truly strut her stuff. Yearning for "make up sex," she uninhibitedly thrusts, writhes, feverishly mounting Robbie in a highly sexualized moment that raised more than one eyebrow from audience members and Robbie himself. Positively fearless work.

Best of all in the cast is Gabe Flores as Glen Gugila, a mini-Gordon Gecko and Julia's scoundrel beau. Wearing sunglasses even at night and donning a Don Johnson white jacket, he's always in character, thinking he's so smooth and cool, talking on an oversized cellular phone. He exemplifies the 80's, working on Wall Street and sleeping around, constantly wiping his coke-caked nose. He rolls up the sleeve to his jacket as if he's going to war; it's almost a violent action whenever he does it (which is often). "This is America," he tells Robbie at one point, "anything can happen." He then owns the money-lovin' anthem of the decade, "All About the Green." When Mr. Flores is not onstage, we miss him and can't wait for the preppie villain to return. He could give lessons on how to steal a show.

Director Zach "Hippie" Griswold admirably leads his energetic cast; his staging is good and he has guided a fun-as-hell experience. My favorite touch is the throwing of the bouquet in Act 1, a slow motion blood-sport among the wedding guests with more than a wink to the bullet in Hamilton. The set is suitable, nothing special, but that works because this show is all about the cast and the vitality that they bring to this 1980's throwback.

If you attend, come early so that you can listen to the pre-show music, songs like "I Want to Dance with Somebody," "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," and "We Built This City." It's akin to listening to "Like Omigod: The 80's Pop Culture Box." I could hear some of these songs all day long, the last time pop music felt so good. And that's the feeling you get from THE WEDDING SINGER: No matter how messy or questionable some of the theatrical choices, it's so much fun, so full of life. Or in a single word, exclaimed by one of the characters: "Awesome!"

From This Author - Peter Nason

    An actor, director, and theatre teacher, Peter Nason fell in love with the theatre at the tender age of six when he saw Mickey Rooney in “George M!” at the Shady Grove in Washington,... (read more about this author)

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