Desert Stages' The Wedding Singer Brings Us '80s Nostalgia, but There's Nothing New About This Wave

It's late to be further bemoaning the state of the American musical. Like it or not, staged musicalizations of popular motion pictures have become a genre of their own, and a staple at little theaters like Scottsdale's Desert Stages. I attended this company's mainstage production of The Wedding Singer with low expectations — I have, after all, seen their productions of Footloose and Tommy — and, while there was plenty not to like about this retro tuner, there were also some small and rather pleasant surprises.

Which doesn't mean that this production isn't swamped with ambitious teenagers trying desperately to keep up with copied choreography or cast with scene-hogging hams who preen and mug in an attempt to charm us. But the fellow playing the lead found more nuance than his part deserved. And I liked how, in a show that's little more than a musical version of VH1's I Love the '80s, Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin's songs advance the story by Tim Herlihy (who also wrote the screenplay for the 1998 Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore movie).

It's a slim story. Robbie Hart (Sean Mullaney) is a wanna-be rock star whose band plays mostly weddings in and around his New Jersey hometown. Not long after his slutty girlfriend (portrayed in this staging by the exceptionally atonal and pneumatic Joanna Perracchio) dumps him at the altar, Robbie falls for Julia (Lizzie Baggleman), a chipper cater-waitress who's engaged to a douchebag. Hilarity in the form of endless references to '80s pop songs and fads ensues and — surprise! — Robbie and Julia hook up forever and ever.

The way we were: Mullaney and company perform.
Ron Nachtwey
The way we were: Mullaney and company perform.

But not before we're reminded of everything we presumably loved about synth pop and Pac-Man. Wisecracks about New Coke and aerobicizing and repeated visual references to Boy George and big-as-a-brick cell phones are the real reason for The Wedding Singer, in which Barbara McBain slums as a groovy grandma who raps about love and wears legwarmers and a profoundly synthetic granny wig. Lest we forget that Sklar and Beguelin's catchy tunes are completely derivative, we're also treated to snippets of the songs they rip off (who's paying royalties on this stuff?) and the video-ready visuals that accompany them ("Casualty of Love" is an homage to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video that's lifted wholesale from the New York production of this tuner.).

Mullaney provides the only consistent bright spot, with an unpretentious performance devoid of youthful swagger. I like Lizzie Baggleman, but not as Julia Sullivan. The actress' guile and intelligence illuminate a girl who's essentially dull and without charm — an archetypal post-punk '80s babe — and could be put to better use in roles of more substance.

While the actors and director/choreographer Jean-Paoul C. Clemente are busily nudging and winking about Madonna and My Little Pony, Terry Helland's set design remains Spartan: a smallish platform filled with Christmas lights stands center stage and supports nearly continuous clod-hopping. The costuming, cobbled together by an entire team of thrift shoppers, is not only accurate but stands as a caveat to anyone who's thinking about rolling up the sleeves of their hot pink vintage dinner jacket. Don't do it. If what you want is to briefly relive the '80s, and aren't concerned about theatrical style or creativity, go see Desert Stages' The Wedding Singer instead.

 
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