Following the unrest of the 1970s, the ’80s was a decade of great music, great fun, and plenty of unfortunate hair and wardrobe choices. It was an era that introduced MTV, EPCOT, Microsoft Word, and Swatch watches as well as fledgling gadgets like mobile phones and now defunct ones like CD players. All of which make it a delightful decade to relive (and poke fun at).
The Wedding Singer provides a nostalgic trip back to this seemingly carefree time. It tells the story of an event performer in 1980s New Jersey who, after being stood up at the altar, loses his faith in love — which makes his job celebrating the unions of others not only difficult but painful. Having never seen the 1998 movie on which this musical comedy was based, I don’t know how faithful it is to the original, but I can report that the show stands completely on its own merits, especially in this glittery and buoyant Palm Canyon Theatre production. (I was also pleased to discover it wasn’t a jukebox musical, which I had initially suspected/feared.)
As the curtains part, the opening number (“It’s Your Wedding Day”) perfectly sets the tone. The choreography (by Anthony Nannini, who also directed) is fun, fresh, and inventive, interpolating various recognizable moves from the period. Ditto for the musical score by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin. (Adam Sander and TWS’s original screenwriter Tim Herlihy composed two of the songs.) It’s the consummate combination of music and movement that makes you want to leap from your seat and join in.
As Robbie the wedding singer, Shafik Wahhab is terrific. The chemistry between him and Elizabeth Schmelling, who plays Julia, is believable and will keep you rooting for them. Both Wahhab and Schmelling are well cast and possess powerful vocal chops as well as the right comic timing.
Shafik Wahhab as Robbie the wedding singer serenades a newly wed couple.
Alisha Bates, who plays Julia’s friend, Holly, also has an amazing voice (as well as an incredible range that actually gave me chills at one point). As Robbie’s band members George and Sammy, Keith T. Nielsen and Christian Quevedo provide much comic relief, as does Leslie Benjamin as Julia’s boozy mother, who’s only a better wardrobe away from being a Real Housewife of New Jersey. Elissa Landi, who plays Robbie’s boundary-free grandmother, also garners plenty of (often inappropriate) laughs, while Cameron Merrihew is the perfect villain as Glen.
In his directorial debut, Nannini does a great job of keeping the energy up and the pacing just right. He also manages to work in a number of hilarious sight gags, including one in “A Note From Linda” that, while incredibly simple, is pure genius.
Elizabeth Schmelling (center) combines a powerful voice with comedic timing in the role of Julia.
J.W. Layne’s set is minimal but highly functioning. It’s a virtual blank slate with several pieces that serve numerous functions, allowing everything to convey various locations. In almost dance-like precision, these pieces are deftly switched around and put into place by the actors between scenes.
As often happens on opening night, there were some sound issues — a couple malfunctioning mics and moments when the orchestra was so loud it was difficult to hear the actors, particularly during the “Saturday Night in the City” number — but the performers soldiered through it all like Broadway veterans.
The Wedding Singer is the perfect marriage of great music, great dialogue, and great performances. Don’t be tardy to this party.
The Wedding Singer runs through July 15 at the Palm Canyon Theatre. For information or tickets, call 760-323- 5123 or visit palmcanyontheatre.org.