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Theatre in Review: Sing Street (New York Theatre Workshop)

Max William Bartos, Zara Devlin. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Sing Street is a musical in which music is oddly peripheral to the overall effect; maybe we should call it a play with a soundtrack and leave it at that. In any case, the current attraction at New York Theatre Workshop is a strangely divided proposition in which story and song vie for the same space, not complementing but crowding out each other.

This is peculiar, since Sing Street is, ostensibly, about lives transformed by music. Certainly, everyone in the show could use a little transformation. The story unfolds in 1980s Dublin, presented here as a place devoid of opportunity, decent income, and, as the script would have it, home heating. To make the point, the book's author, Enda Walsh, kicks things off with a television interview (heard but not seen) indicating that the country's young people are fleeing in droves, seeking better lives. Sixteen-year-old Conor, the show's protagonist, could surely use one. His parents' marriage isn't long for this world: His father's architectural career has tanked -- nobody is commissioning anything -- and his mother is spending a worrying amount of private time with her employer. His brother, Brendan, hasn't left the house in months, and his sister, Anne, is studying -- dutifully, if not happily -- to become an architect, too -- although, in this in economy, she'll lucky if she gets to design a Quonset hut.

Indeed, this sad grouping could use some uplift, musical or otherwise. (Robert, the father, is prone to turning up the radio, as loudly as possible, using classical music to drown out the family din.) But Conor has even bigger problems: In his latest and most onerous economy, Robert pulls the boy out of private school, relocating him to a no-fee institution where the Christian Brothers in charge are more menacing than the bullies lurking in the lavatory. (An example of the official sadism: The school dress code requires black shoes. Conor owns a single brown pair, so Brother Baxter, the monster in charge, makes the boy go about in his stocking feet.)

Despite the creeping squalor, music is in the air, sort of. Early on, we see young people bopping around, releasing their collective frustrations to "Just Can't Get Enough," by Depeche Mode; Brendan has an amusing speech defending Duran Duran as the apex of pop music invention to date. Then Conor tells Raphina -- the fetching, short-skirted young thing he finds striking provocative, fashion-model poses next to a phone box -- that he has a band, is shooting a music video, and she would make a perfect leading lady.

Or course, there is no band. (We're nearly thirty minutes into Sing Street and all we've had are a couple of musical fragments; when, one wonders, will we arrive at a real, honest-to-God number?) But, with the aid of Darren, the school's all-purpose fixer, musicians are assembled, a song written, and a crude video shot. ("The Riddle of the Model," like everything else in the score by Gary Clark and John Carney, is a note-perfect simulacrum of 1980s Britpop; you'll swear you danced to it sometime during the Reagan Administration.) With a half-dozen music-makers assembled at center stage -- albeit up and running as a group in an absurdly short period of time -- this is clearly the moment for melody to take Dublin by storm.

Except that it never happens, even if Walsh's book keeps insisting otherwise in one follow-your-dream oration after another. Conor's pop-star drive serves as a form of self-actualization, fueling his sort-of romance with Raphina, causing an uproar at home, and pitting him against Brother Baxter's oppressive regime. But Carney and company have been content to bring along the original numbers from his 2016 film, which are singularly ill-equipped for any sort of storytelling. Technically skilled and frequently catchy, they are, nevertheless, so much empty ear candy, with lyrics that don't begin to address what is happening onstage. Rather, they're designed to catch a mood: A generically happy song is deemed good enough when things are looking up, as is something vaguely downbeat when the going gets tough.

One thing the songs inarguably do is eat up time that the show can ill afford; what with so many characters vying for one's attention, the script, as constituted, can't support them or their dilemmas. Walsh's book might have worked better were there a score to flesh the characters out. As it is, the playwright struggles to straddle two worlds, combining the sordid details of an imploding, cash-strapped clan with a multitude of starry-eyed notions -- only in musical theatre do total amateurs instantly discover their advanced musical gifts or are insuperable barriers to love whisked away in a trice. The sloppiest twist happens in the second act: Conor and Darren hoodwink their bandmates into breaking a sacrosanct school rule, landing them all in boiling-hot water. To a man, they turn on Conor and Darren; a few minutes later, without explanation, they're back together, playing as if their lives depended on it.

With such sketchy writing and a score that functions most efficiently as background music, Brenock O'Connor and Zara Devlin have their work cut out for them as Conor and Raphina; both are young performers of considerable charm, although somebody ought to work on her shaky vocals. (Her character basically remains unwritten; in contrast to the virginal Conor, the more experienced Raphina has an older boyfriend, although the man is never seen, and the script studiously avoids the details of their relationship.) They have no real scenes to play, leaving their romance to wither. Gus Halper brings surprising nuance to the role of Brendan, who is more or less agoraphobic because I don't know why, and the creative team isn't telling; he also makes something exultant out of "Go Now," the show's eleven o'clock number -- although it's unclear why he should take center stage at the exact moment that Conor and Raphina are making the most momentous decision of their young lives. Max William Bartos amuses as quiet, unassuming Darren, who nevertheless knows how to pull strings. It's a little startling to see Martin Moran -- author of The Tricky Part, the memoir of his abuse at the hands of a pedophile ex-seminarian -- expand his gallery of perfidious clergy as Brother Baxter; in any case, he delivers the one-dimensional tyrant the script specifies. Anne L. Nathan has some welcome moments as a loving parent who tells Baxter off once and for all.

Rebecca Taichman's direction has a casual, offhand quality that suits the material; if neither she nor the choreographer Sonya Tayeh (who makes amusing use of the moves found in early MTV videos) can deliver the kind of big epiphany that makes musicals so enjoyable, it is probably because there are none on offer. Less explicable is the production design. Bob Crowley's costumes are a festival of amusing 1980s fashion follies, but his scenic design is more problematic; he sets the action on a largely uncluttered stage -- making room for the band's trio of rolling keyboards -- against an upstage wall that, most of the of time, features a black-and-white image of the Irish Sea; it's a unatmospheric choice that telegraphs the story's waterborne conclusion. Surely it would have been better to evoke the depressingly downmarket environment in which Conor and his friends are trapped; in this respect, Sing Street, the film, is much grittier than the musical. Christopher Akerlind's lighting is solid, but Darron L West's sound design all too often buries the vocals under layers of electronic instruments -- perhaps a tacit admission that the lyrics don't have that much to say.

In addition to rickety construction, the book offers some surprisingly lame writing. "The only worthwhile culture is agriculture, lads," announces Brother Baxter, illustrating why the boys think him such a pill. Eamon, the timid, bunny-collecting soul who becomes Conor's songwriting colleague, says, by way of warning, "A lot of song-writing partnerships have ended with disaster and betrayal. Lennon and McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel, Sonny and Cher." But Sonny and Cher rarely (if ever) collaborated on their songs; they're just an easy bit of punctuation at the end of a gag that isn't really worth it. Speaking about one of the school's most notorious troublemakers, Darren says, "I saw Barry eat a whole frisbee once -- for a bet, you know." Before one has a chance to digest this lazy gag, Walsh doubles down, having Darren add, "That's quite a lot of plastic for a human person to ingest." If the joke weren't dead before, it certainly is now. (Darren, by the way, suffers because his parents are drug addicts, and he may also have a crush on Conor; the book is so vague on this point, I couldn't tell. But, after about three music lessons, he is an accomplished keyboardist: Welcome to Sing Street.)

All in all, it's a strangely careless enterprise that delivers its pro forma upbeat message with little conviction, proffering songs that could be easily replaced without making much of a difference. (We will waive a discussion of the finale, which is supposed to show Conor and Raphina seizing the day and realizing their dreams; one could just as easily conclude that they are throwing away their chances for a solid future.) Sing Street wants you to believe in the magic of music, but it never really sings. -- David Barbour

(2 January 2020)

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