Monday, May 20, 2024

REVIEW: Stereophonic

Review of the Sunday, May 12, 2024 matinee performance at the John Golden Theatre in New York City. Starring Will Brill, Andrew R. Butler, Juliana Canfield, Eli Gelb, Tom Pecinka, Sarah Pidgeon and Chris Stack. A new play by David Adjmi. Original songs by Will Butler. Orchestrations by Will Butler and Justin Craig. Scenic design by David Zinn. Costume design by Enver Chakartash. Lighting design by Jiyoun Chang. Sound design by Ryan Rumery. Directed by Daniel Aukin. 3 hours, 5 minutes including one intermission.

As we always do after seeing a new show, Mike and I spend the hours following talking about it. Who did we like/not like? What did we think of the script? The technical elements? The direction? Did we enjoy the show and would we want to see this again? And so it was after seeing the epic new play, Stereophonic. I wish I could take back my initial thoughts.

You see, my initial thoughts were pretty straightforward. There's no doubt it's an important new work - a slice of life played out naturally, realistically. But it is way too long, not helped by pauses that would make Pinter squirm, and pretty self-indulgent as far as the length to content ratio. The music, such as it is, is good, not great, and frustratingly incomplete. I'd trade about a half hour's worth of pauses, for another two or three more full songs.

Then something interesting happened. Like I do with all of my favorite productions, I couldn't stop thinking about it, going over and over the events of the play and the tortured artists that inhabit the recording studio we are looking into like voyeurs, or maybe Rolling Stone reporters. Normally, when I don't much care for a production, I gather my thoughts, write a review, then forget about it. In this case, the fact that I am writing this nearly a week after seeing it says a lot. 

David Adjmi
's play, comedy-drama-life study all at once, offers one of the most objective points of view I've ever seen. Events and people are presented, warts and all without commentary. Nearly every character takes a turn at being both the protagonist and antagonist as the unnamed band comes together to create their second album in the mid-1970s. On the verge of huge success, they want to expand their artistry, but want to insure future acclaim and popularity. Though their goals are common, the way each wants to achieve them causes discord, threats, artistic tantrums, and, ultimately some great music. And that is the drama. Adjmi has created a play that creeps up on you. All of the mundane details pile on - life is happening on stage as it would in life, and he sets us up to get to know these people without thinking about it; the big events in this process of creation are as much a surprise to us as they are to the characters. The specificity of this situation (and its obvious parallels to Fleetwood Mac making their seminal album, Rumours) brings out amazing universal truths. 
The word brilliant gets thrown around a lot these days (I use it too much myself), but this really is. 

Director Daniel Aukin deserves much credit for the success this is enjoying. A million tiny details add up to sweeping moments. Each small point leads to huge revelations. And all of it has been directed to appear effortless and true to life. One of the things that Aukin does is allow (force?) all involved to have extended quiet times - those pauses that I found so maddening, but now find to be crucial to the bigger picture. Not only are silences realism at their most basic, they also serve several purposes. The artists get to be in their own heads. They get to digest events, plot ways to push their individual visions for the album, and plot against each other or with each other. And we get to take a moment to digest what we are seeing and how we feel about it.

The recording studio setting by David Zinn is so authentic with its deep oranges and browns, you can practically feel the shag carpeting squishing between your toes, and the rough earthiness of the macrame pillows on your skin. 
Jiyoun Chang's expert lighting subtly tells us where to look, and shows the passing of time, both short and long term. Enver Chakartash's cavalcade of 70s fashions are spot on (the platform shoes are killer) evoking period and character perfectly. The technical star of this play, though, is Ryan Rumery, whose sound design is flawless. He captures every word in front of the booth and behind it, and the music, too.

If ever there was a play cast that deserved a Best Ensemble Tony Award, it is this one. I can't imagine it without any one of them. Andrew R. Butler charms as the knowledgeable if socially inept assistant engineer, Charlie. For a role that hinges on his ability to be unremarkable and unnoticed, it is difficult not to watch his every move. The other engineer, Grover, is a wonderful character, a fake-it-til-you-make-it type with a wisdom that is necessarily hidden, and beyond his years. Eli Gelb both enchants and commands with this deceptively complex character.

The band, a maddening mix of battling egos, insecurities and artistic vision is perfectly, expertly brought to life by a beguiling quintet of triple-threat performers. This iteration of the band includes "original members" Simon, Holly and Reg, three Brits, and now two Americans, Peter and Diana, all five together now for their second album. They create sparks in the studio and in each others' lives. No short cuts here, these actors sing and play their instruments like rock stars. 

As Simon the drummer, Chris Stack delights with his failing restraint at odds with his artistic pragmatism. Juliana Canfield's pixie-like demeanor and unrestrained enthusiasm endears and her talent as both singer and keyboardist is remarkable. Over the course of the play, Reg, the troubled guitarist, falls victim to the success and excess of rock stardom, and as played by Will Brill is both a cautionary tale and empathetic wonder. The explosive relationship between Peter and Diana gives the whole thing its bite, as their troubles threaten to tear each other apart, and destroy the band. Ultimately, that turmoil may actually be what gives the band its biggest success. These are complicated people, and thankfully they are in the more than capable hands of Tom Pecinka and Sarah Pidgeon. Both are exciting to watch and listen to; their chemistry is palpable, and both made me long for even a few more minutes with them. It may be a cliche to say these people make beautiful music together, but it is nonetheless true.

Speaking of the music, 
Will Butler has composed several numbers that capture the sound of the time, and still somehow appeal to today's sensibilities. (The era-perfect orchestrations are by Butler and Justin Craig.) As played onstage, we really only see the full genesis of one song, "Masquerade," and a fair bit of two others, but they serve the play perfectly, being both integral to the plot and the need for full songs secondary. The deservedly lauded cast recording serves as a terrific companion piece. 

Looks like the band - despite the turbulent gestation, or maybe because of it - made an amazing album after all.

📸: J. Cervantes

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