December 28, 2019

Why "Sing Street" is Slightly Off-Key For Me

Sing Street, the new musical that opened last week at New York Theatre Workshop and which is the final big show of the fall season to open, arrived with high expectations. But that can hurt a show as much as help it. And I fear the former is the case here.

Still, the advanced hoopla is totally understandable. Like the multiple Tony-winning and crowd-pleasing Once, which also got its off-Broadway start at NYTW, Sing Street is based on a small indie film about musicians in Dublin. Both films were written and directed by John Carney and adapted for the stage by Enda Walsh, whose book won one of the eight Tonys for Once. And both are filled with engaging music that provides the soundscape for an adorable love story.

Neither Once's stage director John Tiffany nor its choreographer Steven Hoggett are associated with the new show but it has been staged by Rebecca Taichman, who rightly won a Tony two years ago for her inspired direction of Indecent; and the choreographer Sonya Tayeh, who made her name on the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance” and created the movement for the hit Broadway version of Moulin Rouge!

So it’s hard to blame the prognosticators who predicted that lightning might strike twice (click here to read one of them). Still there are differences this time around. The biggest being that Once had a single focus (will the lead characters, known only as Guy and Girl, realize the love that is obviously growing between them and live happily ever after?) while the romance in Sing Street has to fight for space with a slew of competing storylines.

Sing Street’s romance is between Conor, a precocious but sweet teen, and Raphina, the slightly older girl and would-be model who becomes the object of his affection. To win her favor, he forms a band and creates homemade music videos in which she can star. Conor is winningly played by Brenock O’Connor, a 19-year-old British actor who possess the irresistible charisma of a rock star. It’s hard to take your eyes off him.

And yet the plot keeps pulling you away. For the musical also deals with the fractured marriage of Conor’s parents, the agoraphobia of his older brother, the bullying behavior of the priest who runs the new school Conor has to attend, the possible sexual abuse of Raphina, the questioning sexual identities of several of the band’s members and Ireland’s economic depression in the 1980s.

I haven’t seen the film but I’m guessing it touches on all of those subjects but that may be easier to do in a film than onstage. The publicity material says that it was Taichman’s idea to bring the film to the stage (click here to read more about that) but she hasn’t quite figured out how to make the transition.

There’s a herky-jerky quality to the narrative as the show flits from one plot to the next and the characters, particularly Conor’s bandmates, are thiner than communion wafers. Even the scenery by the usually imaginative Bob Crowley is insubstantial. Its main element is a projection of the grey Irish Sea that’s supposed to be symbolic of how the characters all long to escape but eventually turns monotonous and even a little silly.

All in all, this stage version of Sing Street lacks the fizz Taichman brought to such shows as Indecent and School Girls, The African Mean Girls Play. Perhaps she was stymied by the need to juggle so many characters and locations or because she had to devote too much time to finding and developing her young cast who also have to double as Conor’s band. it is nice though to see age-appropriate actors playing teens—and they play the music well too (click here to read more about them).

The score, which features both diegetic songs performed by the band as well as pieces that are supposed to tell us what the characters are thinking and feeling, was composed by Gary Clark and Carney for the movie. The songs, which evoke the new wave sound of the ‘80s, are catchy and are probably a special treat for the often pop-culturally neglected Gen X-ers who grew up with Depreche Mode, Duran Duran and The Cure.

Even so, the 40-ish couple sitting next to me got up and left before the first act ended. I don’t think it’s because Sing Street is a bad show (it isn't) but because it was less than they had been made to believe it would be. So if you adjust your expectations, you may have a perfectly decent time

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