In April 2016, director John Carney released a film called Sing Street. It was set in Dublin in the economically challenged 1980’s and it was embraced enthusiastically, for both its joyous optimism and infectious musical charm. With a story written by Carney and Simon Carmody, it achieved an approval rating of 95% on Rotten Tomatoes fueled most decidedly by the film’s big huge heart. Its irresistible warmth ensnared director Rebecca Taichman (Broadway’s Indecent), causing her to dedicate four years of her life researching in Dublin, alongside Carney (Once), Gary Clark (“Mary’s Prayer“), and the talented book writer, Enda Walsh (Ballyturk, Lazarus, Once), for the way to turn the film into a joyous new stage musical, one that is now, after all these years, ushering itself forward with fierce determination onto the wide stage at the New York Theatre Workshop and giving us all something quite special to grin madly and deeply about.
Starring the irresistible Brenock O’Connor (HBO’s “Game of Thrones“) as the young and gifted Conor, the invincible musical strides forward on a wave of smart directing choices by Taichman and a clear path created by Walsh, both giving the piece a momentum that pulls us in and attaches us more definitively to the characters and their troubles. With powerfully compelling choreography by the fantastically fun Sonya Tayeh (Broadway’s Moulin Rouge!, NYTW’s Hundred Days), and a strong visual/spacial appeal, thanks to the fine work by scenic and costume designer, Bob Crowley (Broadway’s The Inheritance), the beat sings, even against the bleak backdrop of a heaving ocean under a dark and formidable sky. The musical defiantly rolls out in opposition to what lies behind and before these stellar dreamers. It’s given a wonderfully appealing assist from lighting designer Christopher Akerlind (Broadway’s Indecent) and sound designers Darron L. West (MCC’s Moscow Moscow…) and Charles Coes (Roundabout’s Robber Bridegroom), finding the emotional core to drive it forward on the back of a solid 80’s beat. All one can say is that “I Just Can’t Get Enough” of the well performed Depeche Mode, thanks to the crew of solid guitar playing singers hanging around the edges just aching to jump in and help out.
Conor, the youngest child in a tense Irish family teetering on the edge of a financial and familial cliff, finds his life in upheaval, mainly because his father, Robert, engagingly played by Billy Carter (ATC’s Hangmen) is struggling desperately in his architecture business (not much need in those tough economic times), not to mention his dismal marriage to Conor’s mother, Penny, strongly portrayed by Amy Warren (Broadway’s August: Osage County). Times are tough, inside and out of the familial home, and Sing Street gets the rhythm set in motion during a hot-headed family meeting, when it is announced that in order to save money, Conor must leave his expensive fee-paying school and move to a Christian Brothers school by the name of Synge Street CBS.
This is not welcome news to the young man, but no one sees any other solution. Conor’s older brother, Brendan, portrayed most touchingly by the very appealing Gus Halper (MCC’s Ride the Cyclone) hasn’t left the house ever since he tried making it on his own in London a few years back, and his sister, Anne, forcibly portrayed by the talented Skyler Volpe (59E59’s The Hello Girls) is weighed down by the pressure to do well at college. Both siblings shine in their moment in the spotlight, but in that opening scene do little to ease the discomfort Conor is feeling about the change, even as we see and feel the empathic compassion that floats wordlessly between them. And this new school lives up to the fear and anxiety that floats in Conor’s head. On his first day in his new school uniform, unfortunately wearing brown shoes, not the regulation black shoes – a problem that never seems to let up, the scenario seems bleak. Conor nervously attempts to stay out of trouble, and navigate his new surroundings. He has a tense run in with the school principal Brother Baxter, played to aggressive perfection by Martin Moran (Broadway’s Cabaret) and a somewhat strange bullying encounter in the toilet with Barry, beautifully portrayed by Johnny Newcomb (Public’s The Low Road), a tough-guy with a deeper sensitivity than one could see coming. The encounter with Barry sits confusingly heavy on Conor’s heart, but it does lead him to Darren, a friend, ally, and entrepreneur, tenderly played by Max William Bartos (“The Lottery“), all to the soundtrack of 80’s pop gods, Duran Duran.
But then Conor sees Raphina, daringly portrayed by Zara Devlin (Rough Magic’s Hecuba) leaning seductively against the phone booth near his new school, claiming to be an aspiring model. Conor has no hope but to fall fast and hard as only a desperate high schooler can, and in order to impress her, he tells the beautiful young woman that he needs someone just like her to star in a music video his band is making, And the ploy works (on us and on her). Now he just needs a band, and with the help of Darren, who agrees to manage that band, Conor is introduced to a gangle group of uber-talented misfits and rebels, centered around the unique and nerdy Eamon, delicately portrayed by the wonderfully endearing Sam Poon (Broadway’s MacBeth). His story in complex, but with the strong, most loving encouragement of Eamon’s magnificent mother and piano teacher, Sandra, heroically played by Anne L. Nathan (off-Broadway’s Broadway Bounty Hunter), they all make us believe in the goodness of friends and strong Irish mothers all over again. This strong minded Irish Mom and Newcomb’s bullying Barry surprise, but it’s in Conor who we place our heart. Falling helplessly and hopelessly for Raphina, he writes a song, the quintessential 80’s mock-pop song, “Riddle of the Model.” that brings the company of talented strangers all together and unify the band’s sense of community with yet another tuneful wonder, “Up”. It’s simple and lovely; lighting me up, breaking me up, and most definitely, lifting me up.
With strong music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements by Martin Lowe (Broadway’s Harry Potter…) and a strong lead by music director Fred Lassen (Broadway’s Mean Girls), the band of magical misfits, namely drummer Anthony Genovesi, the electrifying Jakeim Hart (A.R.T.’s We Live in Cairo) as Larry, the sweetly naive Brendan C. Callahan (Greater Boston Stage’s She Loves Me) as Gary, and the wonderful Gian Perez (UofM’s In The Heights) as Kevin, rock out the 80’s pop with gleeful joy.
Sing Street, the band, focuses their actions and energy on optimism over all the oppression and pain that surround them, and they triumph. It’s infectious and a pleasure to ride that rebellion with that crew of wild creationists, dressed to the nines in their mother’s borrowed frocks and coats. The trials and tribulations of young love and religious oppression are no match for this cast of wide-eyed optimists. Ahhhh, to be that young and full of hope, but more importantly, to dream that one can reach happiness and fulfillment with just one long treacherous boat ride away. The last few scenes balances most gingerly on the somewhat ridiculousness, but we are hooked long before they set sail. We gladly wave them forward into their dreamy lives wishing them success and a safe journey across the way. Just like we do with this crew of smart theatre professionals, talented cast members, and one whip smart director at the helm. You’ve done your homework, and I wish you all well in your journey to your musical dream.
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