By Cameron Hughes
Truly original shows are risky. Occasionally, though, something fresh comes along which is so skillfully conceived and mounted, you wonder why no one has done it before. Stereophonic is one of those shows.
Stereophonic opens in June 1976 in a recording studio in Sausalito where an emerging rock band spends a year recording their next album. Five people make up the band: Reg (Will Brill) on bass, Holly (Juliana Canfield) who sings and plays keyboards, Peter (Tom Pecinka) on lead guitar handling most of the lead vocals, singer-songwriter Diana (Sarah Pidgeon) on occasional piano and tambourine, and Simon (Chris Stack) on drums. The actors play their own instruments with impressive skill. The two other characters are studio engineer Grover (Eli Gelb), and his assistant Charlie (Andrew R. Butler).
The spectacular set has a control room downstage with a large window running across separating it from the upstage studio. At times we only see the control room, but when the studio floor lights go up, you see and hear the activity of the musicians. The engineers control the audio feeds from the studio floor, activating and muting conversations and instruments. The creative team behind this production clearly knows this environment.
There are two married couples in the band; Reg & Holly and Peter & Diana. We witness the frayed nerves of five unique and sometimes incompatible people trapped for a year in a windowless environment struggling to collaborate. In true 70s rock and roll spirit, the married couples don’t seem to be completely beholden to monogamy. There are long stretches of boredom (three days are spent getting the drum sound right), explosions of anger, marital arguments, and drug and alcohol use, but also victorious celebrations when a song finally falls into place. This is a wild, thrilling ride.
The characters in the show are rock (ahem) solid. These are five individuals with hopes and dreams, insecurities, vulnerabilities, misunderstandings, overbearing behavior (I’m looking at you, Peter), and deep pain. Fragilities are exposed when someone brings something new to the group and waits for approval or criticism, both of which are sometimes given in the same response. It’s a dysfunctional family writ large. Impressive too are the struggles of the two women striving for equality and acceptance by their male bandmates (two of whom are also their spouses). These characters have convincing feelings and emotions, and their struggles are palpable.
Equally prominent are the two recording engineers acting as babysitters for this irresponsible, explosive, petty, difficult group; but they’re also clearly stuck in place as the band’s servants.
The dialogue here is perfect. A couple will have a conversation downstage with lots of overlapping sentences, while others behind them have another conversation where they’re talking over each other as well. This is wonderfully true-to-life, and instead of confusing, you never seem to lose the important moments. There is rich, wonderful writing throughout, and every actor is adept at bringing depth and life to their character’s actions and words. The show is also explosively funny.
The wonderful music by Arcade Fire’s Grammy-winning Will Butler adds a large dose of reality to the show. He’s a skilled songwriter and his contributions to the production are essential. They almost convince you the band you’re watching is real. Equally impressive is Daniel Aukin’s direction; what he accomplishes here is a wonder.
Praise must also be given to the sound and lighting, and to the theater staff who dressed the lobby in period posters with a bazaar/flea-market upstairs featuring 70s-era clothing and memorabilia.
The running time is long at just over three hours, but it never flags; it’s a very enjoyable three hours.
This wonderful show at Playwright’s Horizons deserves a life after its initial (and extended!) run here. If it ends up moving to Broadway, I wouldn’t be surprised, it’s that good.
With: Will Brill (Reg), Andrew R. Butler (Charlie), Juliana Canfield (Holly), Eli Gelb (Grover), Tom Pecinka (Peter), Sarah Pidgeon (Diana), and Chris Stack (Simon).
Creative Team: David Adjmi (playwright), Will Butler (songs & music), Daniel Aukin (director), Erin Gioia Albrecht (production stage manager), David Zinn (scenic design), Enver Chakartash (costume design), Jiyoun Chang (lighting design), Ryan Rumery (sound design), Natasha Sinha (associate artistic director), Alaine Alldaffer (CSA, casting), and Blake Zidell & Associates (press representative).
Stereophonic has been extended. It opens on October 29th and now runs through November 26th on the Mainstage at Playright’s Horizons (416 West 42nd Street). Performances are 7:30PM Tuesday through Saturday with shows at 2:00PM and 7:00PM on Sunday. Running time is 3hr 5min including one intermission. Tickets are $61.00, $81.00, and $101.00 and can be purchased here.