“Sing Street” is a stage musical based on the sweet, funny “happy-sad” 2016 Irish movie by writer/director John Carney about a teenager named Conor growing up in Dublin during the economically depressed but musically vibrant 1980s, who forms a band to impress a girl name Raphina.
The musical has its pleasures, especially for those nostalgic for the era of made-for-MTV, New Wave synthesized tunes. A talented group of young adult actor-musicians, ages 16 to 25, perform mostly original pastiche songs by Carney and Scottish singer-songwriter Gary Clark, who was part of the 80s scene and continues his hit-making now. But “Sing Street” the stage musical is likely to disappoint anybody who has seen “Sing Street” the movie (which is currently available for viewing online, through IMDB TV, for free.)
This comes as something of a surprise given the pedigree of the creative team. Carney has enlisted as the stage musical’s librettist the same playwright, Enda Walsh, who turned Carney’s 2007 Irish movie “Once” into a Tony-winning musical. The show’s scenic and costume designer Bob Crowley won one of his several Tonys for “Once.” The show’s director, Rebecca Taichman, won a Tony for helming “Indecent.”
Yet none of them are doing their best work in “Sing Street,” which loses much of the quirkiness of the film, and feels broader and, despite self-consciously minimalist stagecraft, more commercial — closer to, say, “School of Rock” than “Once.”
The change is evident from the get-go. The movie begins with Conor playing the guitar while in the background his parents bicker. He repeats their argument as if their words are lyrics, setting them to music.
“If we didn’t share a mortgage, I would leave,” he sings in falsetto imitating what his mother has just said.
“Go on and leave any time you like,” he sings absurdly deep-voiced in imitation of his father.
It’s hilarious, and also pointed, telling us all we need to know about the tensions in the family before we even meet them, and why a smart boy would want to escape his life through music.
There is no such opening scene in the musical. Instead there’s something more artificial. We see Conor (Brenock O’Connor) emerging from a dollhouse, and somebody turning on a radio that is broadcasting an interview with a teenager who says he’s leaving Ireland because there are no jobs. Then we see Conor listening to and trying to play along with a recording of Depeche Mode’s “I Just Can’t Get Enough.” He soon gets the hang of it and is joined by the rest of the cast, playing the song hard-edged, yes, but also professionally — as if they are entertaining a paying audience at a musical, which of course they are.
The two “Sing Streets,” movie and musical, tell the same story: Conor, forced to leave a good private school that his family can no longer afford, is sent to the rough-and-tumble school run by the Christian Brothers on Synge Street. From the first day, he’s tormented by the priest in charge, Brother Baxter (Michael Moran), and bullied by an abused classmate Barry (Johnny Newcomb.) He sees Raphina (Zara Devlin) across the street from the school, and bravely goes up to talk to her. She tells him she’s a model; “I almost shot a music video last month.” He then and there invites her to star in the music video of his band. And then seeks out his brand new friend Darren (Max William Bartos) to help him put together a band. Happy-sad lessons in love and life ensue.
In the movie – and in Broadway musicals like Bandstand and Gettin The Band Back Together – much of the initial action is the recruitment of the band members, whom we meet one by one and in that way get to know as individuals. But we’ve already seen the band together in the opening number of “Sing Street” the musical, doing the Depeche Mode number, and we never see them recruited, or, in truth, learn much about them as individuals. This is too bad, because the performers are good enough that we want to know them more.
The show does better with Conor’s sister Anne (Skyler Volpe) a wit and wise ass who is studying to be an architect, and with his big brother Brendan (Gus Halper), a college drop-out and a shut-in who starts off advising Conor in music and love, and ends up admiring him for his willingness to try to escape. Brendan is given the rousing 11 o’clock number “Go Now,” the main effect of which is to wonder why we didn’t notice him more during the rest of the show.
The band, which decides to call itself Sing Street (a pun on the location of their school), spends much of their time making music videos. This kind of begs for there to be projections of the possibly funny fruits of their labor. But the only projection in “Sing Street” is of the Irish Sea, always rolling, never-changing. I know there’s symbolism here – the sea as both come-on and barrier to a more fulfilling life for the Irish characters — but still….
Similarly, there is great humor in Conor and his Sing Street adolescent rockers adapting the makeup and androgynous costumes of each star band of the era as he learns about them from his brother. The movie’s costume designer Tiziana Corvisieri and a 13-member makeup department and costume go whole hog in the kids’ transformations, while the designers of the musical go….piglet?
Speaking of animals, there is one thing the musical has that the movie lacks – a live baby rabbit. It doesn’t hop though.
New York Theatre Workshop
Book by Enda Walsh ; Music and lyrics by John Carney and Gary Clark. Based on the motion picture written and directed by John Carney
Directed by Rebecca Taichman. Choreography by Sonya Tayeh. Scenic and costume design by Bob Crowley, lighting design by Christopher Akerlind, sound design by Darren L. West and Charles Coes, hair and makeup design by J. Jared Janas.
Cast: Max William Bartos, Brendan C. Callahan, Billy Carter, Zara Devlin, Alan Eskenazi, Gus Halper, Jakeim Hart, Martin Moran, Anne L. Nathan, Johnny Newcomb, Brenock O’Connor, Gian Perez, Sam Poon, Skyler Volpe and Amy Warren
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes including an intermission
Sing Street is on stage through January 26, 2020