The auspicious partnership of producers Margo Lion, New Line Cinema and Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater brought Broadway “Hairspray” in 2002, so naturally hopes have been high for the trio’s second venture, “The Wedding Singer,” which debuted Thursday night in Seattle. The new show, like its predecessor, cleverly renders in costume and song the excesses of a particular era (in this case, 1980s New Jersey rather than 1960s Baltimore). But in other key respects, “The Wedding Singer” is no “Hairspray” — at least not yet.
The musical follows the outline, though not the details, of the 1998 film on which it’s based: A washed-up rock ‘n’ roller finds true love — and himself — in the suburbs of Jersey.
In the movie, the leads were played by Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, two actors who shared a misfit charm that made their partnership seem inevitable. Here, Robbie is played by Comedy Central’s Stephen Lynch and Julia by Laura Benanti — performers arguably more vocally and dramatically talented than their screen counterparts, but somehow less suited to the material. Both exude a kind of wholesome niceness that comes across as almost bland; they’re attractive, but we never see the idiosyncrasies that mark them for each other.
It’s hard to say from the outside whether this is a problem of casting, direction, or writing. Certainly Julia is not given much to do in the script other than wistfully dream of marriage. (Her trashy friend Holly, played by Amy Spanger, has a lot more spunk.) And Lynch’s character is written as an amiable Average Joe, with only occasional detours into a kind of manic desperation. His suicidal solo rant, “Somebody Kill Me,” which he sings holed up in his room after his girlfriend dumps him, shows a darker, funnier, more personal side we’d like to see more of.
The show gets off to a rambling start, eating up the clock with comic asides such as a man’s inebriated wedding toast, and Robbie’s grandma Rosie (Rita Gardner) tunefully recalling the indiscretions of her youth. This is time that would be well spent bonding the audience to Robbie and Julia and their best friends, the characters at the heart of the play. Some of this bonding takes place later, for instance, when Robbie and his funny, flaky bandmates drunkenly sing the joys of being “Single” — but too much later.
In general, the second half of the show is tighter than the first. Here, almost all the songs move the narrative forward, and some of the most interesting secondary characters — all perfectly cast — get a chance to shine: Julia’s sleazy Wall Street fiance Glen (Richard H. Blake) leads a rollicking ode to ’80s greed, “All About the Green.” Robbie’s pals (Kevin Cahoon, Matthew Saldivar) show their silly, endearing sides in “Single.” And Grandma Rosie gets to “Move That Thang.”
The score, written by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, traverses the full range of ’80s styles, from power pop ballads to rap, to head-banging rock. Some come up short when compared to the vintage hits they emulate; others when compared to Broadway prototypes (“Not That Kind of Day” is thematically akin to the swoonier “People Will Say We’re in Love” from “Oklahoma!”). But some work up a toe-tapping drive of their own, such as “Pop” and “Saturday Night in the City.” How you like the music now might depend on how you liked it back then, though it’s all delivered in the show with a heavy dose of good humor.
For many of us, the ’80s were one never-ending bad hair day. The teased bangs, the flouncy skirts, the Lycra aerobics garb, the (ugh) “layered look”: costumer Gregory Gale and hair designer David Brian Brown have captured it all to a pastel T. And the writers (Tim Herlihy, who wrote the screenplay, and Beguelin) get plenty of laughs with drive-by references to such period icons as Michael Jackson, Flock of Seagulls, Madonna and the proto-videogame Pong.
A lot of the jokes rely on the audience having a working knowledge of ’80s pop culture; this show will appeal most to the middle-agers who suffered through their teens or twenties in that decade. To reach appeal to a broader audience, “The Wedding Singer” will have to tell a compelling story as well as spoofing a generation.