Curtain Calls: â??Wedding Singerâ? has commitment issues

We had a dog once – a German Shepherd. He was smart, affectionate, and handsome, protective, playful, and endowed with that gleam of canine self-respect unmistakable in the eyes and the carriage. But every once in a while this perfect dog would go out in the fields as if on a mission and roll in cow dung.

Now what made me think of that? I was just asking myself, why would Riverside Dinner Theatre, a venue Iâ??ve watched improve for more than 16 years, one that has attracted Sally Struthers to its stage and acclaim far beyond its borders, nailed â??Les Miserablesâ? and recently developed a kitchen worth the trip alone â?? why would Riverside put on â??The Wedding Singer, the Musical Comedyâ??

Because itâ??s summer? Certainly where theatre is concerned, summer is the time for mindless froth. No meat and potatoes here â?? audiences are served the entertainment equivalent of cotton candy.

Weâ??ve heard it before: The â??80s are the new â??50s; meaning a decade that wasnâ??t memorable for itself, but after it was gone developed an afterglow brought on by nostalgia and faulty memory. Why else would Tim Herlihyâ??s 1998 script about a wedding singer who loses love then finds love be set in the â??80s?

Adam Sandler in a remarkably unobjectionable performance as Robby Hart and Drew Barrymore as the sweet gal pal turned love interest gave the film a respectable showing. But that wasnâ??t good enough. Composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin went scampering with Herlihy into the musical comedy meadow for a good roll and came out with â??The Wedding Singer â?? the Musical Comedyâ?.

And now itâ??s at Riverside. The good news is that director/choreographer Christopher Noffke has a talented, versatile cast to work with. They can sing and they can dance â?? boy, can they dance! But thatâ??s where the bad news comes in. As a director whose heart is in choreography, Mr. Noffke has drilled them to a fare-thee-well on the â??Flashdanceâ? inspired moves while overlooking a few basics. Acting, for instance.

In an attempt to bombard the audienceâ??s senses with retro â??80s Hair! Moves! Color! a thing so fundamental that I am almost embarrassed to bring it up is sadly lacking: truth. The director says that this cast will make us â??smile, cheer, and jump in the air.â? (Not in my night, they didnâ??t.) But this is a false objective. If thatâ??s what you want from your audience, then you need to give them a reason â?? and a desperate pumping energy from the stage isnâ??t enough.

Thereâ??s actually a story in â??The Wedding Singer.â? Robbie (Richie Barrella), a wedding singer, gets his heart torn out when his fiancée, Linda, leaves him at the altar. Sweet girl-next-door type, Julia (Kelsey Sheppard) befriends him and gradually falls in love with him even though she is engaged to a two-timing junk bond king named Glen Guglia. Mix-ups and crossed wires ensue.

No oneâ??s arguing with the competency of the song and dance performances. â??Itâ??s Your Wedding Dayâ? sets the innocent optimism that defines Robbie. â??Awesomeâ? with Robbie and Julia shows off their harmonious pipes. After the jilting, Robbieâ??s descent into the dumpster â?? literally and figuratively â?? gets â??Somebody Kill Meâ? and â??Casualty of Love.â? Julia joins him for a little pep talk in â??Come Out of the Dumpster.â? And somewhere between â??â?¦Dumpsterâ? and â??If I Told Youâ? weâ??re supposed to believe theyâ??re in love. It might help if they looked at each other at least as often as they gaze at the audience.

But with no direction on how to play it as if they actually meant it, the bulk of the production appears to have been spray painted with a sticky layer of â??cute.â? Ms. Sheppard skips, stalks, and storms around the stage but never walks like a human being. Mr. Barrella does the puppy eyes and plays up the â??boy-man schtickâ? of Adam Sandler, but never achieves an authentic emotional tone. I wanted to holler â??Perk DOWN!â?

There are, nevertheless, moments of camp and vamp that work because theyâ??re not trying to be anything else. Darian Lunsford as band member George, a boy-George wanna-be, finds that infinitesimal bit of dimension that betrays the insecurity behind the bluster. His solo at the Bar Mitzvah, â??Georgeâ??s Prayer,â? a piece that can be ruined by amateurs trying to be funny, finds its proper balance.

Another odd scene that works is Lindaâ??s attempt to come back to Robbie in â??Let Me Come Home.â? Sheri Hayden takes the sluttish, over-the-top seduction attempt to outlandish lengths, but the combination of desperation and discomfiture makes humor its saving grace.

Juliaâ??s friend Holly (Christina Carlucci), all big hair and layered jelly bean colors, competently fills the requisite girl sidekick role as a counterbalance to the mulleted Sammy (Kyle Timson). And Calvin Malone is despicable as Glen, meaning that he seems to have found his center in a two-dimensional role. Well, itâ??s a two-dimensional musical.

And then thereâ??s Grandma Rosie, right out of Dan Gogginâ??s â??Nunsenseâ? playbook. The theory is that stupid remarks about sex are adorable in the mouths of actresses in nun costumes â?? or little old ladies. Itâ??s not Carol Hagyâ??s fault, and she gamely does her best. But the â??rapâ? duet with George, â??Move That Thangâ? feels like a late night inspiration for â??how do we get from â??If I Told Youâ? to â??Grow Old With Youâ?? The target audience will think itâ??s hysterical.

Designer Scott Lily accommodates the many scene changes with area sets, and canâ??t be faulted for thinking that too much â??80s is not enough. That should explain the Rubikâ??s cube stage border.

Still, itâ??s summer and no oneâ??s demanding deep thoughts. What youâ??re guaranteed is a great dinner, a lot of high octane dancing, and even some laughs.

Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher. You may reach her at maggiecatbird@aol.com.

If you go:

What: â??The Wedding Singer â?? the Musical Comedyâ?
Where: Riverside Dinner Theatre Fredericksburg, Va.
Call: (540) 370-4300 or visit riversidedt.com
Playing through Sept. 6