In the new musical “Sing Street,” now premiering at New York Theatre Workshop, Ireland is no country for young people — at least not in 1982, with the economy in freefall. “If there’s no work, if we can’t make a living here in our own country, like we have to go,” explains one emigrant headed, like so many others, for London, which Dubliners invoke with the yearning of Chekhov’s three sisters for Moscow. Set designer Bob Crowley underlines the mood with a bleak backdrop of a heaving ocean under an ominously dark, lowering sky.
Nonetheless, there are some young people who are stuck in Dublin for the near future. That includes 16-year-old Conor Lawlor (played with heart-tugging sincerity and a melodious native accent by young Brenock O’Connor), a gawky high-school kid and the youngest child in a family of five who are just barely making it through these hard times.
Mom (Amy Warren) and Dad (Billy Carter) can’t manage a hand up for the lad or offer much hope for his dreams. As this depressed dad points out, there’s just no work for an architect in a tanking economy. Conor will just have to make it to manhood on his own.
Conor’s escape hatch is music – something wild and free like Depeche Mode’s “I Just Can’t Get Enough.” But when he picks up his guitar and makes a clumsy stab at playing the song, it’s obvious that the kid needs a lot more practice. Lucky for him, there’s a whole company of guitar-playing singer-actors hanging around on the sides of Crowley’s barely-there set. Once they lend Conor their fine clear voices and musical savvy, the song plays through, reflecting the young man’s longing to grow up and live life.
There’s also big brother Brendan to talk to. As played with a splendid show of teenage braggadocio by Gus Halper, this 21-year-old sees himself as a real man of the world. There’s something sweet about his well-intentioned efforts to advise his baby brother on his love life, which begins when Conor notices the beauteous 18-year-old Raphina (Zara Devlin, bless her sexy smile and tangy accent) leaning seductively against a brick wall.
There are the usual highs and lows in Conor’s maturation. Family finances compel him to leave his private school and study with the priests. Martin Moran has a funny (or do I mean scary?) turn as one Brother Baxter, may the Lord forgive him. And on one unfortunate occasion, an older boy bullies him, leaving him with a bloody nose and a sense of hopelessness.
On the plus side, falling in love with Raphina inspires Conor to write a song, the very sing-able “Riddle of the Model.” That triumph emboldens him to start a school band and, you know, write more music. The entire company finally comes to life in “Up,” with its simple, lovely lyric: “She lights me up / She breaks me up / She lifts me up.”
Now, if only their severe headmaster would let them enter the Inner-City Dublin School Band Concert…
Playwright Enda Walsh, who won a Tony Award for his work on “Once,” has written a wholesome coming-of-age book (based on the 2016 film), with lovable characters and universal themes that fit hand-in-glove with Gary Clark and John Carney’s life-affirming score. “Look Now,” for one example, poignantly articulates a young woman’s longing to connect with another person, even someone from another world. “There’s no sign of life / Voices, another sound / Can you hear me now?”
Meanwhile, down below in the real world, young people everywhere wonder what the future holds for them, or, indeed, if there will even be a future for them to inherit. “Has there ever been a more depressing time to be Irish?” Conor wonders — a bit theatrically, perhaps, but no less true.
If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that the sweet book, lovable characters, and universal themes are all too familiar. Unlike “Once,” there’s no hint of adventure, no sense of new ground being broken in this softy musical directed by Rebecca Taichman. There’s even the notion that the creatives may have taken a step or two backwards, in that the actor-singers play the same musical instrument — guitar — rather than the panoply of instruments in “Once.”
To finish with the rude comparisons, this coming-of-age story, charming though it may be, doesn’t stack up against the offbeat love story in “Once.” There’s no authentic conflict, just the interior struggle of young people everywhere growing up in hard times. You might call that a universal theme — or you might just as easily call it a well-worn dramatic device.