It’s 1982 Dublin, Republic of Ireland. The country is in a recession and there is no work anywhere. Those with mobility and ambition leave for London and the United States, while the Conors led by out-of-work architect Dad (Robert is played by Billy Carter) and his family exhaust their savings and downsize their lifestyles. The circumstances create drama for the lives of the struggling family of five in writer/director John Carney’s vibrant if thinly drawn theatrical adaptation of his 2016 film Sing Street currently enjoying its run at New York Theatre Workshop until 26 January.
Based on Carney’s film, the comedy/musical with dramatic elements is directed by Tony Award winning Rebecca Taichman (for Indecent 2017) with book by Enda Walsh, music and lyrics by Gary Clark and John Carney and choreography by Sonya Tayeh. The original story is by John Carney and Simon Carmody.
Sing Street has additional songs (others from the film have been pared) with selections from iconic tunes from New Wave and pop groups including songs by Depeche Mode, Spandau Ballet, Japan and others. And there are original songs, some of them from the movie, co-written by John Carney and Gary Clark (former lead of Scottish band Danny Wilson from the late 1980s).
Enamored by Carney’s film Taichman was inspired to adapt the film for the stage. She pursued the project, meeting Carney in London where additional conversations and meetings resulted in Enda Walsh writing a first draft of a libretto using the score from the film. The project evolved. There were more creative meetings and additional work periods and a refining of book and music with extensive development at New York Theatre Workshop that incorporated movement.
Considering that Carney and Walsh had brought together a theatrical adaptation of Tony Award Winning Once (from Carney’s 2007 film Once) beginning Off Broadway at NYTW (2011) and shifting to Broadway in 2012 (garnering 8 Tonys and other theater awards), the creative team appears golden. Will Sing Street follow the same trajectory as Once to land on Broadway when it is ready? Its incubation at NYTW looks to be moving it in the right direction.
As in Once, the actors are talented musicians/singers. They play a wide variety of instruments to make up the band that teenage Conor (Brenock O’Connor) seamlessly puts together to impress and lure Raphina (Zara Devlin), who presents herself as a “model.” Impressed, smitten by her look and demeanor, Conor invites her to appear in music video with his band. Conor’s pitch is a stretch for he has no band and most probably Raphina who has dropped out of school to “become” a model is laying it on “thick” as well. But no matter; the die is cast, and the intrigue is on. Both have made each other the inspirational backboard upon which to encourage and solidify their dreams and hopes.
Since Conor’s family’s fortunes have spiraled downward, he must attend the reasonably tuitioned state-run Christian Brothers school on Synge Street (named after John Millington Synge the poet, playwright, prose writer, political radical and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre). That Conor decides to turn a curse into a blessing by morphing the name of “Synge” to “Sing” as part of the title of his band is his ingenious, if not ironic touch, because the venue where he must attend school is anything but desirable, initially. Nevertheless, as one of the many themes of the production, Conor pushes himself to the top of a coal heap and turns coal into diamonds withstanding the pressure he undergoes in the school and on this street.
The new environs are a far cry from Conor’s Tony elite Jesuit school where he fit in and did well. The headmaster of Christian Brothers, Brother Baxter (Martin Moran) is a martinet who challenges Conor at every turn, even to censuring him for defying the regulation color of his shoes (they must be black). Conor doesn’t have the money for new ones, but if he did, he would most probably spend it on something more uplifting and useful.
Their disagreements and Baxter’s unexplained wrath grow into a peaked conflict which could be deepened beyond Baxter’s one-sided characterization. He is, rather a stereotypical, cleric “bad-guy,” antagonist to Conor’s angelic-faced, innocent whom we root for unquestioningly because he’s heading up a boy-band with grand ambitions. What’s not to love about Conor? What’s not to dislike about Brother Baxter? Complexity is wanted.
Conor is also at odds with some outliers in the school community who bully him and beat him up, i.e. Barry (Johnny Newcomb) whom we discover to be gay and hiding under machismo thuggishness. Classically, his warped background and lack of self-knowledge or acceptance about who he is provokes his bellicosity. Walsh and Carney reveal his vulnerability in his scenes with Sandra (the superb Anne L. Nathan) rounding out his character and revealing his development.
Interestingly, it is the adversity reflected in the change of schools that forces Conor to rise to the occasion guided by his college-drop-out brother Brendan (the sensational Gus Halper) to establish his band (the most entertaining and delightful part of Act I). In the process of tackling obstacles to bring together clever and talented Eamon (Sam Poon) Kevin (Gian Perez) Larry (Jakeim Hart) Gary (Brendan C. Callahan) and Darren (Max William Bartos) Conor gains confidence and shares his enthusiasm and confidence with his band members. The feelings are mutual. This bravado helps him in a face-off with Barry and eventually inspires him to stand up to Baxter’s niggling injustices. The climax of their conflict comes in Act II, after Baxter gives Conor and his “Sing Street Band” permission to enter The Inner-City Dublin School Band Contest, then sadistically punishes Conor by retracting his permission. Conor and the Band’s response is joyous.
Underscored throughout is Conor’s growing love relationship with Raphina, despite her threat to be pulled away to London by her boyfriend, and Conor’s deteriorating family situation as his father splits with his mother Penny (Amy Warren). Penny moves out to fulfill an affair with her boss. Conor’s sister Anne (Skyler Volpe) and older brother Brendan who himself needs a resurrection into a new person since he can’t move himself to leave the house, are Conor’s support group. The scene where the family situation blows up rings with authenticity and we are happy as is Brendan (Halper’s song at the finale is just terrific) that Conor is able to break away and leave with Raphina, enriched and enlivened by what he has accomplished on Synge Street, with “Sing Street.” Conor truly has reversed his fortunes and spun out a golden path for himself.
The music and performances are steady, effervescent and fun; it is a joy to be returned to the 1980s era which was nothing short of vibrant. We are in a different environment with a projection of the Irish Sea beckoning in the background, the waters flowing at the conclusion of the production. The band’s movements/song performances are right-on and glorious, and it is a rally to watch O’Connor’s Conor work his magic with confidence spurred on by Halper’s Gus who is gobsmacking in the role as Conor’s caring older brother.
The love relationship that develops between Raphina and Conor is convincing; though indeed we wonder how much of Raphina’s riffs to Conor are a complete front job. What does the future have to offer for a female drop out who comes from a troubled family life? Love from someone as appealing, dynamic and ambitious as Conor is a miraculous gift. She would be a fool to spurn him.
In its verve, positive themes, joyful celebration of 1980s music and triumph over a time of doldrums in Dublin, Sing Street is illustrious and welcoming. Kudos to the creative team who helped the production morph from screen to stage. These include: Martin Lowe (music supervisor, orchestration & arrangements) Bob Crowley (scenic & costume design) Christopher Akerlind (lighting design) Darron I. West (co-sound design) Charles Coes (co-sound design) J. Jared Janas (hair & makeup design) Fred Lassen (music director).
Sing Street is running at NYTW until 26th of January. See it for its music, performances and overall joie de vivre. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.