Review of Sing Street at New York Theatre Workshop

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    December 17, 2019
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    The moral of Sing Street, as taught by a group of moody teenagers and put-upon adults, is that music, even 1980’s pop music, can transform a boy into a man, especially when aided by the love of a pretty girl and the support of an older brother. This new musical, receiving its world premiere at New York Theatre Workshop, is a distillation of the 2016 semi-autobiographical film by John Carney about his coming of age in Dublin and then his getting the hell out. Those who arrive at the show with the movie still in mind will find Carney’s songs beautifully refreshed, with samplings of period hits like Depeche Mode’s “Just Can't Get Enough" and Duran Duran’s “Rio” providing counterpoint. But they will also find less chemistry between the two love interests and less depth to the supporting characters. Those who have never seen the film can expect loose strings and six-strings, rousing chorus numbers, some charming ballads and a tale that veers between silly and sad, violent and soft.

    With a book by Enda Walsh (Carney’s collaborator on their Broadway hit, Once), and additional music and lyrics by Gary Clark, Sing Street tracks a rough year for Conor (Brenock O’Connor) as his family’s finances force him from a posh private academy into the free but strict Synge Street, a Catholic school that comes complete with a bully named Barry (Johnny Newcomb), an equally brutish principal, Brother Baxter (Martin Moran), and a half dozen lads who, fortunately, are skilled guitarists, keyboard players and drummers. Conor takes after his brother, Brendan (a sympathetic Gus Halper), in his love of rock-and-roll, but his passion takes on new urgency once he meets Raphina (Zara Devlin), the mysterious, slightly older girl with “dangerous eyes” and a questionable habit of hanging around outside of a boys’ school. Conor impresses her with a lie, that he is a band singer, then goes about turning his class into a bona fide school of rock. With his parents on the verge of divorce, Baxter on the warpath and Dublin in general seeming to hold no future, Conor accomplishes what his brother never could: winning a girl and escaping to London. That’s great for them, but awkward for veteran director Rebecca Taichman who is left with staging the final number, “Go Now,” without her two leads.

    The greatest joy of the film was watching Conor’s evolution from innocent to self-assured. Here, O’Connor’s Conor, in a workmanlike performance, grows bolder over time but seems pretty streetwise from the get-go. Devlin’s Raphina, meanwhile, is missing the tragic edge needed to create a hotter spark between her and her beau.

    Bringing this particular flick to the stage comes with several unsolvable problems. Barry the bully actually gets fleshed out more than in the film, but still his pivot into becoming an accepted member of the band seems forced, despite a touching effort by Newcomb. And the movie’s two major metaphors, the pull of the Irish Sea, and the push of MTV videos, find little traction. Scenic designer Bob Crowley does offer a massive projection of the ocean, but omits the essential hint of land on the horizon, barely within reach.

    (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

    "There is throughout some lovely interlacing of bubbly pop and more somber, contemplative strains, as when Moran's priest intones a prayerful counterpoint to the band's aching love song "Dream for You." (Martin Lowe did the orchestrations and arrangements.) Or when Conor's older sister, Anne (Skyler Volpe, lovely), erupts into rage as her parents bicker, pounding a tattoo on the kitchen table that becomes the drum beat for the band's exploration of the sexual divide, "Girls." And the show's finale, "Go Now," is a sentimental knockout. During such moments, you hear the voice of the more fully satisfying musical that "Sing Street" could become. The band at its center is already in precociously fine shape. It's the show that surrounds it that still needs fine tuning."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "While director Rebecca Taichman’s production offers moments of transcendence, particularly in the often-luminous second act, the show needs some additional polish on its hero’s defiantly brown shoes."
    Thom Geier for The Wrap

    "Like the theatrical version of Once, which went on to win eight 2012 Tony Awards including best musical and was also scripted by Walsh, this new project has been incubated at New York Theatre Workshop. But unlike Once, which already was quite polished in its off-Broadway debut, Sing Street is still finding its footing, with too many underdeveloped characters and a shakily plotted second act. The songs are fun, however, and the scrappy, rough-edged quality of the staging is an appealing fit for the central storyline of a 16-year-old boy assembling an ad hoc band, initially as a ruse to get closer to an enigmatic beauty."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter