Surflight Theatre’s ‘The Wedding Singer’ Comedy Full of Chuckles

But Making Jest of Jersey Is Getting Old
Jul 24, 2018
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

I thought I knew what I was getting into when I attended a performance of Surflight Theatre’s current main stage production, “The Wedding Singer.” I had never seen the 1998 movie of the same name, starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. But I remember Sandler from his days, uh, nights on “Saturday Night Live” and I had seen his 1996 film “Happy Gilmore” and will admit I liked it. Knowing Sandler’s early brand I figured “The Wedding Singer” musical would be goofy, filled with sight gags and stuffed with empty but harmless comedic calories.

Sure enough, it was goofy. Its book, by Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy, could have been written on napkins, more of a collection of skits than a coherent product, which makes sense considering Herlihy was the head writer of “SNL” in the second half of the 1990s. The show’s storyline can be basically reduced to one line – lovable loser Robbie Hart (Owen Beans), a wedding singer who dreams of being a rock star, meets sweet and innocent waitress Julia Sullivan (Christa Steiner), falls in love, and spends the rest of the show trying to win her heart and steal her from her fiancé, Glen Guglia (Andrew Foote) after his own fiancée, Linda (Adrianne Hick), doesn’t show up at the altar.

But it is the diversions from the story arch that reveal the patched-together aspect of the book, with one scene particularly telling – Robbie, in a funk after being dumped by Linda, can’t face singing at other people’s weddings and restricts himself to singing at bar mitzvahs, featuring a song, “Today, You Are a Man,” that is a direct descendant of “The Chanukah Song,” which Sandler sang on “SNL.”

Adding to the show’s skittishness is the fact its characters aren’t as much characters as caricatures. Glen is a greed-loving Gordon Gekko on steroids, or, actually, cocaine. Linda is a witch, or at least something that rhymes with witch. Julia’s cousin and best friend Holly (Lexi Baldachino) has trouble finding a husband because, after all, why buy a cow when the milk is free? Robbie’s grandmother Rosie (Gerri Weagraff), whom Robbie still lives with in Ridgefield, is a sassy senior citizen like so many on “SNL.” One of Robbie’s bandmates, Sammy (John Guaragna), is as much of a loser as Robbie – he’ll end up sleeping on a couch somewhere – while the other, George (Ryan Mulvaney), is flamboyantly gay ala a 1980s icon, Boy George. The parts were played well, especially by Steiner, Mulvaney, Foote and Hick, but, come on, not much character analysis was required.

Still, skits and caricatures can be funny; it is no accident that “SNL” has survived for decades.

The plentiful sight gags, all related to the 1980s, in which the show is set, added to the fun. Primitive cell phones were especially lambasted. And the show’s penultimate scene features a number of Vegas impersonators of 1980s idols including, appropriately enough, Billy Idol, as well as Mr. T, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Tina Turner, Cyndi Lauper and Imelda Marcos. “The Wedding Singer” may not leave you with tears in your eyes from laughing, but it is a chuckle fest.

No doubt about it, “The Wedding Singer” has plenty of empty comedic calories. Take one punch line: If Julia Sullivan marries Glen Guglia she’ll become Julia Guglia. Beguelin and Herlihy liked it so much they repeated it later in the show.

Add energetic dance numbers designed by director/choreographer Paula Hammons Sloan, a master of energetic dance numbers, and Surflight’s “The Wedding Singer” had this reviewer, not normally a lover of lowbrow comedy, tossing in his hat and joining in the applause by the end of the show.

But it took at least half the show to win me over. That’s because although the comedic calories gave me a sugar high, I didn’t find them to be harmless.

Remember when dumb characters tended to come from the South? Well, poking fun at Southerners is no longer politically correct – you can’t joke about them unless you’re one of them, such as Jeff Foxworthy. But New Jersey is apparently fair game for anybody.

“The Wedding Singer” movie helped set that tone, coming out a year before “The Sopranos” and a full 11 years before “Jersey Shore.” I didn’t know its humor was based in a large part on putting New Jersey down, with its residents being portrayed as hopeless bridge and tunnel people with North Jersey accents (a situation made worse by the fact that many of the actors struggled with said accents, making them more grating than the real thing). That might have worked in 1998 when the movie came out, or even in 2006, when the musical opened on Broadway. But now it’s getting old in more ways than one. Could most theatergoers younger than 35 know of Imelda Marcos and her love of shoes, or recognize Billy Idol?

Maybe it’s time for “The Wedding Singer” to retire to Florida.

— Rick Mellerup

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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