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A CurtainUp Review
The book is by Tony Award winner Enda Walsh ( for Once) has written the book, Gary Clark and Carney the music and lyrics, and Sonya Tayeh the choreography. But, even with this A-list team on board, Sing Street somehow lacks that kind of frisson that makes a production levitate.
The backdrop is Dublin, Ireland, in 1982. A recession has hit. Thousands are out of work and families are barely scraping by. Sixteen year-old Conor (Brenock O'Connor) and his schoolmates find that music is the answer to the slings and arrows of their times. To lend spark there's a romance between Conor and an aspiring young model called Raphina (Zara Devlin).
The opener is visually and thematically memorable. You see a 4-foot Victorian House that is atop a kitchen table at center stage and a huge screen projection of the roiling Irish Sea upstage (minimalist set design by Bob Crowley). The Lilliputian house (a metaphor for the diminished dreams of Irish families in the 80s?) is immediately opened to reveal 21 year-old Brendan (Gus Halper) sipping wine and listening to a news reporter on TV interviewing Dubliners on the dreadful state of the economy and how Ireland is no place for youth.
This scene segues into a more intimate one, with Brendan's father Robert (Billy Carter) and his mother Penny (Amy Warren) calling a family meeting to discuss how the family can tighten their already-strapped budget, beginning with Conor's transfer into a tuition-free Christian School called Synge Street (Yes, it's named after the 20th century Irish playwright). As the impending reductions in the family's life style is described in more detail by the parents, Conor and his two older siblings, the aforementioned Brendan and 19 year-old Anne (Skyler Volpe) groan in unison.
At first blush, Sing Street has a School of Rock tang to it. Instead of a likable substitute teacher to rally the young students at school to find their "inner rock animal," there is a piano teacher called Sandra (Anne L. Nathan) who looks and talks like a Marine (Anne L. Nathan) and offers Conor and his classmates some pointers on making the grade with their music.
If Sandra serves as the token mentor, the sadistic principal at school, Brother Baxter (Martin Moran), becomes Conor's nemesis. He insists Conor follow the Christian Brother institution's credo: "Viriliter Age" (Latin phrase for "Act Manfully"). Of course, this creates problems for Conor and the members of his newly-formed school band "Sing Street," who all wear make-up and flamboyant outfits to underscore their fledgling cultural revolution. Little wonder that the starchy Brother Baxter objects and soon tries to derail Conor's band from competing in The Inner-City Dublin School Band Contest. Or as Brother Baxter righteously puts it: "I am not in the business of validating some young boy's impulse to sing-a-song or draw a picture. "The only worthwhile culture is agriculture, lads — the rest is just pageantry."
As a piece of musical theater, Sing Street is pleasing to the ear. In Act 1, there's the song "The Riddle of the Model" that the character Conor pens to capture Raphina's enigmatic personality. Then there's the aptly titled "Up" that Conor first dedicates to Raphina but that later becomes a kind of anthem for happiness for the school band. Still, the melody that most dramatically propels the action forward is "A Beautiful Sea," a collage of sound and images that playfully leads to an impromptu baptism for Conor and Raphina and closes out Act 1. These new wave-ish songs don't end there.. "Drive It Like You Stole It" in Act 2 is the edgiest of the lot, tinged with danger and more.
The big problem. is that the subplot fails to integrate into the larger musical. The creation of Conor's school band and his subsequent romance with Raphina lie at the heart of the story. But Walsh doesn't adequately absorb the subplot of the family's collective troubles into it. You learn the reclusive Brendan hasn't left the house for three months, his studious sister Anne can't find a quiet room away from her parents' bickering, not to mention that the parents are on the cusp of a divorce. Indeed, there's just too many fragmented episodes here and not enough fully-realized portraits of family members.
Sing Street is extremely well-acted. Brenock O'Connor and Gus Halper, both making their NYTW debuts, are riveting in their parts. O'Connor's Conor projects the attitude of a young man with a do or die bravado. Halper's Brendan is the epitome of the know-all older brother who can't fix his own life. Zara Devlin, playing Raphina, is well-cast as a smart young woman who's caught between being totally in-control and emotionally vulnerable. The rest of the ensemble turn in admirable performances, even if their characters aren't fully realized.
Although Sing Street is often enchanting as a musical theater piece, I don't think it is going to hit the jackpot at NYTW. Unfortunately, there's no Academy Award winning-song up its sleeve (Carney's movie Once won the 2008 Oscar for its song "Falling Slowly") and its dramaturgy still feels a bit sketchy.
That said, Sing Street hits many notes just right. And it does convey the power of music and the enduring resilience of the human spirit.
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Based on the motion picture written and directed by John Carney. Direction by Rebecca Taichman
Cast: Max William Bartos (Darren), Brendan C. Callahan (Gary), Billy Carter (Robert), Zara Devlin (Raphina), Gus Halper (Brendan), Jakeim Hart (Larry), Martin Moran (Brother Baxter), Anne L. Nathan (Sandra), Johnny Newcomb (Barry), Brenock O'Connor (Conor), Gian Perez (Kevin), Sam Poon (Eamon), Skyler Volpe (Anne), Amy Warren (Penny).
Book by Enda Walsh
Music and lyrics by Gary Clark & John Carney
Set design: Bob Crowley
Lighting design: Christopher Akerlind
Choreography: Sonya Tayeh
Fight direction: Thomas Schall
Sound design: Darron L West & Charles Coes
Music director: Fred Lassen
Stage Manager: Amanda Spooner
New York Theater Workshop, 9 East 4th Street. Tickets: $125. For more information, phone 212-460-5475 or online at www.NYTW.org
From 11/26/19; opening 12/16/19 , closing 1/26/20
Running time: 2 hours; 30 minutes with one intermission
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 12/21/19
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