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Publication: Syracuse New Times
Author: Mackillop, James
Date published: June 23, 2010
Language: English
PMID: 58875
ISSN: 0893844X
Journal code: SYNT

Sandler and Young

Appleseed's Wedding Singer adds a pleasing 1980s musical bounce to an Adam Sandler movie showcase

June had become a slack time for Syracuse theaters, when all the action was in Cortland, Auburn and Ithaca. Then in 2007 Appleseed Productions director Greg Hipius decided to bring in more than two dozen men in wigs and knee britches for the Declaration of Independence musical, 1776. It became an unexpected hit, spawning a mini-tradition with the company.

Enter Dustin Czarny, Appleseed's departing board chair. As he has started two companies on his own, the improv group Don't Feed the Actors and a dinner theater outfit at the Locker Room on Hiawatha Boulevard, Not Another Theater Company, he's marking his departure from Appleseed with a lengthy program note. To leave with a bang he's putting more than 40 people on the basement stage of the Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W. Glen Ave., eight of whom are in the band. As some of the actors are taking multiple speaking roles, not credited in the program, only he knows how many characters there are in the much-anticipated production of The Wedding Singer.

If you think of The Wedding Singer as an Adam Sandler vehicle, forget it. Sandler is an acquired taste that some of us never got around to acquiring, but that's nothing to hold against the show. A great part of the movie's appeal is hasty mock nostalgia for a bygone era: the 1980s. Singer might have come out in 1998 but the action is assertively set in 1985, flooded with chart hits: "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" by Culture Club, "White Wedding" by Billy Idol and Madonna's "Holiday." When The Wedding Singer became a modest Broadway hit in 2006, the original songs were deleted and replaced with new material by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin in the appropriate idiom.

When fashions go out of style, we have learned, they must suffer through a period of being comic before they can become classics. So it is with hand-held phones the size of bricks. Toward this end Czarny has imported award-winning costumer Jeanette Reyner along with reliable Harlow Kisselstein to get just the right (i.e. dated) look for the stomping herd on stage. To keep reminding us of that decade, the script calls for an appearance of Ronald Reagan, or at least a plausible impersonator (Gerrit Vander Werff Jr.). The program neglects to tell who's doing what, but we also have celebrity cameos from the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Imelda Marcos and Iggy Pop.

Robbie Hart (Terence LaCasse), the singer of the title, plies downmarket motels of northern New Jersey, where you can see Newark on a good day. He performs for bar mitzvahs and weddings with two pals, the hairy Sammy (Jordan Westfall) and the somewhat effete George (John Ginn). The musicians feel it's agreeable work, with ready access to free food and available ladies, but the job suffers a bit in status and income. These are brought home when Robbie's voluptuous bride-to-be, Linda (JesseRose Pardee), dumps him at the altar because she doesn't think he'll ever amount to anything. It's crueler than in the movie where she doesn't show at the church and delivers the dirty news later. Here she makes a kind of ghost appearance, as she sings out the news in a letter to him, the show-stopping "A Note from Linda."

Stumbling into Robbie's life, literally, is Julia (Katie Lemos Brown), a waitress from one of the reception halls where he performs. She's a doll, but it's anything but love at first sight. Instead she's already engaged to a careerist yuppie, Glen Guglia (Jon Wilson), whose full wallet wins the endorsement of Julia's mother Angie (Kathleen Egloff). Despite actor Wilson's native charms, we're turned off Glen immediately because he's a dunce of a businessman (loves New Coke but says no one will ever pay $3 for a cup of coffee) and turns out to be an even worse lover: He's cheating on Julia even before the wedding.

Strangely for a musical comedy, much of both the first and second acts are given over to Robbie's wandering in the emotional deserts, roaring in his complaint in some of the show's best numbers, "Somebody Kill Me" and "Casualty of Love." He receives the consolation of Julia's lovely and exotic cousin Holly (Rachelle Clavin) and even more from pint-sized comic grandmother, Rosie (Binaifer Dabu). Rosie had been a singing student of Robbie's in the movie but rises to more prominence here as a salty-tongued, Estelle Getty-styled member of the family. Both go on to huge, crowd-pleasing numbers, Clavin in "Saturday Night in the City," climaxed by dousing herself with water, and Dabu in the rap-accented "Move That Thang," a performance destined to live on in community theater oral history.

Since we have observed the chemistry between Robbie and Julia from the beginning, it takes extensive contrivance from Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy's book to keep the lovers apart until the final curtain. For a while Robbie considers going yuppie, as when he and Glen warble "All About the Green." In a moment of bogus tension, Robbie mistakes Julia's intentions when he spies through her window to see her in a wedding dress. But, hey, can Julia ever expect to marry a guy whose last name is Guglia?

A show this big can hardly be expected to be perfect, and a list of small defects, like players not standing over their marks or dancers not kicking on cue could weigh you down. The reasons The Wedding Singer is an unprecedented box-office smash for Appleseed (attendants are even directing traffic in the parking lot!) include compelling energy and exuberance, exemplified in Stephfond Brunson and Rachelle Clavin's choreography, in which they both appear while also serving as dance captains.

Terence (formerly Terry) LaCasse makes Robbie his coming-of-age role. His face has been familiar for at least 10 years, but he's been reinventing himself at Le Moyne College, taking challenging roles in Shakespeare and Brian Friel and directing the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre. Along with his reliable power to make audiences like him, LaCasse creates a character from his native persona, not just a cute song-and-dance-man, but an anguished Gentile schlemiel, who struggles with himself as well as his fate.

Katie Lemos Brown, a well-trained performer with national credits, knows how to have Julia send us (and Robbie) two messages at once. How ironic that a woman with such graceful deportment should make her entrance by stumbling, but that's what acting is.

The Wedding Singer arrives with unprecedented pent-up audience demand. This enthusiastic Appleseed mounting sends the crowd home happy.

This production runs through July 3. See Times Table for information.

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