Review: The Wedding Singer (Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre)
Kevin Clifton and Rhiannon Chesterman star in the musical version of the hit romcom, which comes to Wembley
Musical theatre snobs may roll their eyes at yet another tuner based on a movie, but The Wedding Singer is more fun than most, and improves upon its source material in at least one way. Tim Herlihy (who also co-wrote the script for the show) and Adam Sandler's day-glo bright tribute to the 1980s, about goofy, cute New Jersey singer Robbie who failed first at being a rock star, then in love, and now fronts a wedding band, always felt like it could use a few more numbers to turn it into the musical it is just a couple of guitar licks and high kicks away from being.
Well, here are those missing songs, courtesy of Broadway writing team Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, and they add up to an infuriatingly catchy score of 1980s pop pastiches, the kind of tunes you think you've heard before, full of pounding bass, and wailing synths and electric guitars. It may not be "high art" but try getting some of these melodies out of your head for hours after the show.
Furthermore, these New Jerseyans – from Robbie's misfit band members to his rapping, randy granny to his Heavy Metal obsessed ex – are the kind of people that seem to be crying out to express themselves through song. The mainstream musical theatre conventions mean that they lack some of the specificity and quirkiness they had in the original movie but they are still larger-than-life, colourfully engaging creations.
This musical version isn't actually that new – it was a modest success on Broadway in 2006 and there have been several UK tours since the British premiere in 2008 – but this remounting courtesy of Nick Winston (who previously directed the piece at Curve Leicester) is the nearest the show has had to a proper London run. One can only assume that it is the lack of availability of West End venues that forced the producers to opt for a season at the Troubadour Wembley Park, a gigantic space more akin to an aircraft hangar than a conventional theatre. It says much for the material and this excellent cast that large amounts of charm, warmth and humour still manage to register in this unsympathetic auditorium.
They aren't helped by a physical production that might charitably be described as minimalist. Francis O'Connor's set consists of little more than a screen, a couple of sliding fences, a staircase on wheels and a few bits of furniture: it's a very spartan way to evoke the decade that knew no restraint. Ben Cracknell's elaborate rock stadium lighting ups the ante considerably though, and O'Connor's suitably garish costumes enhance the period feel. The wigs are dreadful...I know the natural look wasn't big back then but some of the performers seem to have whipped their hair off a passing Dorothy Perkins mannequin circa 1985.
If Winston's staging of the book scenes is rarely inspired, his choreography is terrific: suitable for the period, but athletic and inventive enough to thrill present day audiences. The small but immaculately drilled ensemble power through the dance routines like their lives depend upon it, and the evening contains several moments of blissful, hyper-energetic exhilaration.
Ironically, Strictly's Kevin Clifton as Robbie gets very few opportunities to really cut loose in terms of the dancing. However, he is such a relaxed, sympathetic stage presence, and natural comic, with a rangy, listenable voice, that you won't even care. If his accent is sometimes a little inconsistent, this is still a lovely central turn. As Julia, the waitress who befriends him despite being engaged to a slimy Wall Street go-getter, Rhiannon Chesterman is every bit his match, winningly combining feistiness and sweetness in an adorable performance that may just improve upon Drew Barrymore's in the film.
There's smashing work too from Tara Verloop as Julia's party-girl cousin Holly, Jonny Fines as Julia's nasty fiancé, and Ashley Emerson as Holly's clueless, hang-dog on-off boyfriend (in a particularly witty lyric she sings of him at one point "if ignorance is bliss, then he's overjoyed"). If Sandra Dickinson's rapping grandma may be taking the cuteness a bit far, she sells her shtick with so much joy that it's hard to resist.
Modern sensibilities may struggle a bit with the (period authentic) objectification of women (to be fair, most of the men are portrayed as idiots) and the depiction of sole gay character, über-camp pianist George, although he is imbued with such likability and comic flair by Andrew Carthy that it's hard to be offended.
The Wedding Singer wasn't a classic film and this isn't a classic musical, but it's a lot of fun. There may not be a lot going on in it's head, but it's heart is in the right place and it's dancing feet are a thing of wonder.