Though only a modest success at the time, the original 1997 “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” stuck around to achieve a sort of mainstream cult status by being something always welcome but not so frequently found: A fairly smart comedy about pretty stupid people.
Alas, that advantageous contrast has not been maintained in the musical version now at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater. Supersizing a slender concept that needs to maintain its goofy charm, this world premiere instead goes bigger and blunter. “Rock of Ages” director Kristin Hanggi’s colorful but cluttered production, as well as a score and book that could use considerably sharpened wit, create a stage entity that feels overblown without having yet located a unifying core. While the potential is still there for a musicalized “R&M” to improve upon its source, as “Legally Blonde” did, at present this loud, effortful stab at a crowdpleaser goes in the opposite direction.
That it should feel so coarsened is a little odd, since the original wasn’t exactly Oscar Wilde, and book writer Robin Schiff not only penned the screenplay but the play (“The Ladies Room”) which preceded it. The basics, as well as a lot of individual lines, remain the same: Ditzy Romy (Cortney Wolfson in Mira Sorvino’s role) and ditzier Michele (Disney stage regular Stephanie Renee Wall, doing a pretty fair Lisa Kudrow) have spent a decade as roomies, having ditched Tucson to live their dreams in Los Angeles. As those dreams don’t extend much beyond living where the sartorial fashion is that “Nothing is too short, nothing is too tight” (as the opening number “Big Night Out” has them trilling), the ever-dieting bottle blonde quasi-twins have done OK.
But an invite to the Sagebrush High class of ’87’s ten-year reunion prompts this generally oblivious duo to ponder just what they’ve done with their lives. Romy’s job as cashier girl at a Jaguar dealership hardly equals a “career;” Michele, whose intelligence level might best be described as decorative, hasn’t worked in a while. How can they impress former classmates when their main activities are designing their own garish clothes, getting ignored at clubs, and watching “Pretty Woman” for the umpteenth time?
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Expanding the film’s flashbacks to occupy more of the first half, the show gets them on the road at intermission, their master plan being to simply pose as “sophisticated businesswomen” whose fortune rests on having invented Post-Its—a ruse that quickly goes south. Still, the reunion does re-acquaint them with erstwhile sources of crushdom and loathing, including unreconstructed queen-of-the-mean-girls Christie (Tess Soltau), the dreamboat jock Romy still carries a torch for (Michael Starr as Billy), the “freakazoid” who bore unrequited love for Michele (Michael Thomas Grant’s Sandy), and the antisocial “weirdo” turned rich entrepreneur who loved him (Jordan Kai Burnett as Heather). History repeats itself with new bullying humiliations before our heroines’ essential niceness—and shallowness—wins the day.
Some of the better moments here preserve or amplify the film’s more surreal ones, like a nightmare involving refrigerator magnets, or an even longer version of the interpretive dance that provided the 1997 model with its inspirationally ridiculous climax. Yet despite the overlap between screenplay and book, the humor here feels flattened out, in large part because one can sense both the performers and the show straining to fill 5th Avenue’s cavernous stage. It was probably a mistake to launch “R&M: The Musical” on such a large scale; it already plays like a too-broad, amped-up touring version of something that might have seemed ingratiatingly quirky in a more intimate setting.
There’s a lot of activity but not much connective style or sensibility to Donyale Werle’s mobile set elements, however apt their retro-El Lay washes of pink, turquoise and neon. Likewise, Peggy Hickey’s choreography keeps a company of sixteen moving, though without enough personality or purpose to always make it clear why there are so many people on stage, beyond the need to fill that stage. One thing that does consistently work, albeit at risk of nearly overwhelming everything else, is Amy Clark’s array of consummately bright, tacky clothes in a vintage “more Cyndi Lauper than Madonna” mode.
Husband and wife composer-lyricist duo Brandon Jay and Gwendolyn Sanford, creating what appears to be their first stage score after lengthy forays in other media, have contrived twenty-odd workmanlike but forgettable songs that feel like pastiche—tipping hat to the film’s soundtrack of 80s New Wave synthpop, plus more traditional showtune idioms—without the smart parody edge they need.
Indeed, the show as a whole loses too much of its source’s absurdism, growing all-too-earnest in rote “girl power” and “follow your dreams” messaging, while the high school stereotypes that once satirized John Hughes now feel like a lowbrow “Grease” redux. When Heather does a bump-and-grind “Love is… (Bullsh–, Baby),” or the mean girls get one of their smugly supercilious showcases, the target is hit—but then, it’s broad as a barn door.
The vocally strong cast works hard but don’t seem able to insert much distinguishing idiosyncrasy; one grows grateful for Wall’s physical and vocal quirks, even if they are simply once-removed Kudrow. There’s too much of Hannah Schuerman’s sad-sack class photographer, a role Camryn Manheim was able to goose onscreen, and not enough of Starr’s Billy, whose vainglorious entrance is amusing enough to raise expectations of a comeuppance (when he’s a ten-year-older drunk) that never arrives.
Some notably clunky transitions and fleeting dead spots on opening night will doubtless smooth out during the course of the run. But “Romy and Michelle’s” musicalized reunion might be best off retreating to the workshop and to smaller venues, where it can hopefully acquire an Off Off Broadway air of cult-worthy silliness before again hazarding Broadway-level production brass and bloat.