'Stereophonic' review — a familiar song about the trials of rock and roll
Read our review of Stereophonic, a new 1970s rock-inspired play with music, currently playing off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons through November 26.
Heavenly harmonies can mask the hell it took to get the voices to blend. That’s one takeaway from David Adjmi’s Stereophonic, a play with music about a 1970s rock band.
Clocking in at just over three hours, the work is a worthwhile yet long-winded theatrical reminder that the 1977 blockbuster pop-rock album Rumours is a gift that keeps on giving. Specifically, the notorious tumult tied to sex, drugs, and creative battles Fleetwood Mac endured while making the album in California.
That well-known saga already inspired Daisy Jones & the Six, first a novel and then a TV series. And, now, there’s Stereophonic, with a stage take on the tale.
Adjmi (Stunning, 3C) never names the band in the play, seemingly avoiding the name "Fleetwood Mac" with a 10-foot drumstick. But watching its members make music, love, and war for a year starting in June 1976 in a Sausalito recording studio, it’s impossible not to think of that group.
Similarly, Stereophonic's fictional British/American band finds itself in an enviable and discomfiting position as its members record their new LP. Thanks to their earlier work, they’ve charted at No. 1. Success breeds success, but also anxiety, competition, and envy.
That dynamic adds to an already volatile interpersonal situation, which the claustrophobic studio exacerbates. The marriage of cocaine-addled British bass player Reg (Will Brill) and vocalist/keyboardist Holly (Juliana Canfield) is dying. Meanwhile, vocalist/guitarist (Tom Pecinka) bullies his lead vocalist girlfriend Diana (Sarah Pidgeon) and systematically erodes her confidence. Finally, being away from his wife and kids is wrecking Simon (Chris Stack), the drummer.
When they’re snorting blow, the players rage at their significant others or throw their weight around. Sound engineer Grover (Eli Gelb) and his assistant Charlie (Andrew R. Butler) deserve combat pay.
The players do manage to lay down tracks on new songs. Whenever the band gets busy, Stereophonic comes alive – and the actor-musicians completely convince as rockers.
Original songs by Arcade Fire alum Will Butler deftly summon a late ’70s sound. Compositions neatly underline the plot, whether it’s “Masquerade,” a title that speaks for itself; “Drive,” speaking of “love waiting in the wind”; and the plaintive “East of Eden.” Whether any of these songs make the cut for the album is a question, just like the fate of the band left in shambles after the recording process.
There’s a lot to admire about Stereophonic. The cast gives feel-real performances under the thoughtful direction of Daniel Aukin. David Zinn's recording studio set could pass for the real thing. Enver Chakartash's costumes, particularly the chunky-heeled huaraches, could have walked out of a ’70s closet.
On the B-side (er, downside), Adjmi calls the play a “love letter to artists.” In terms of fresh ideas about the creative process, the play doesn’t deliver an LP’s worth of insights. In the end, it feels like a song we’ve heard before.
Photo credit: Sarah Pidgeon, Juliana Canfield, and Tom Pecinka in Stereophonic. (Photo by Chelcie Parry)
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