‘Wedding Singer’ a pleasurable theater experience

By Gary Clift

Last week I attended a Thursday night showing of the stage musical The Wedding Singer in K-State’s McCain Auditorium. Also in attendance were a number of college students, and I think they had a different experience than did I.

Oh, we all enjoyed ourselves. Director Dwight Tolar made certain we would by keeping the events hopping along. Paul Hunt and Amy Rosine had prepared the twenty-four on-stage, student performers and the fourteen-piece off-stage band to bounce their ways through the pop songs that made up most of the entertainment.

Working in Dana Pinkston’s right-on nineteen-eighties clothes (and hair styles), under John Uthoff’s effective lighting, and on Kathy Voecks’s quick-changing set, the performers also danced well. In fact, the dancing, designed by Jerry Jay Cranford with some reference to the ballroom moves of the eighties, may have been the most pleasing element of this generally pleasing entertainment.

The pop culture of the eighties was one of the primary subjects of the musical, as it had been of the Adam Sander and Drew Barrymore movie on which the stage show was based. The songs imitate eighties pop music. Recognizable characters from the televised world of the decade were imitated—Imelda Marcos, Cindy Lauper, Mr. T, and, of course, Billy Idol. Joey Boos had a pretty good sneer for his brief appearance as the Pop Rock hero. What a great day for a white wedding.

The story, though, is still straight from “The Graduate.” Dance band musician Robbie (Sam Massey) is unhappy in love. He finds his romantic ideal in caterer’s waitress Julia (Elise Poehling, who was exceptional as always). But she is set to marry a financially substantial man. In the two movies the protagonist uses a mode of public transportation in stealing the girl away—a plane in the Sandler movie (“You can’t do that to Billy Idol!”) and a bus in the Dustin Hoffman one.

In the musical, Robbie follows the eloping couple to Las Vegas and works his romantic magic in a wedding chapel decorated like the White House. He is consistently supported by his musical sidemen, Sammy (Mathew Ellis), who has some fascination for Julia’s friend Holly (Sara Belhouari), and smiling Boy George channeler George (Randy Rhoten, who really won the crowd during his short spell as Tina Turner).

Robbie also gets some sympathy from his grandmother (Sandy Chastan, demonstrating entertaining dance moves). The heavies were Julia’s fiancee, the high-flying stock trader Glen (Donovan Woods), whose last name is Guglia so that Julia’s married name would be a joke, and Robbie’s former fiancee Linda (Hannah Conroy-Philbrook). She’s around long enough for stage Robbie to get off the movie’s second most famous line, the one about jinxing Van Halen to the point that the band would break up.

When the movie was new, the crowd in the theater knew that Van Halen did break up. I wondered if 2013’s twenty-year-olds know that. Do they know who Imelda Marcos was? Do they recognize the 80s elements in the songs, dance, and clothes? Does anybody remember the then-common insistence that large-volume stock trading was somehow morally incorrect?

Whether their cultural memories extend that far back or not, the young people in the crowd seemed to be having fun as the show ran. In the beginning they waited for permission to clap after musical numbers. By the end of the story they were active and enthusiastic. As were most all of us in the house.

While The Wedding Singer is never going to be a classic musical—Manhattan High has the classics covered with this week’s South Pacific—it proved to be an entertaining show that the university company was able to both enliven and substantiate. If the songs were undistinguished, the playing, singing (some of which recalled Meatloaf’s duets), and dancing gave the audience plenty of amusing diversion. If the story was familiar, so what? It’s a decent story.

And maybe young theater goers don’t know what MTV was like when it showed music videos. But if the real subject of the musical is not so much The Eighties as is is Nostalgia, that would explain how young and old could have a similar experience while watching The Wedding Singer. A pleasurable experience.

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