PROVIDENCE — At its heart, Lauren Yee's "The Song of Summer," is a love story. A charming, funny, witty, love story with a sweet, surprise ending. There are certainly plenty of irreverent, risqué and edgy moments, but essentially, it's the story of homecoming, of families ... and of love.
The play, which had its world premiere at Trinity Rep earlier this week, is also multi-layered, rich and absorbing, with four fascinating, complex, lovable characters (and a fifth adorable one) who'll keep you laughing, entertained and intrigued from the moment the play begins.
"The Song of Summer," directed by Taibi Magar, tells the story of Robbie Retton (Charlie Thurston) a pop star in the throes of mega-stardom — and an identity crisis — who escapes to the town of his childhood — and the home of his beloved former piano teacher, Mrs. C. (Ann Scurria) — to try to make sense of his life. While there, he reconnects with his old flame, Mrs. C's adopted daughter Tina (Tina Chilip.) Chilip, is a force. A delightful force. An exquisitely talented force who gives a strong, brilliant, memorable, not-to-be-missed performance.
Thurston, handsome and winsome, is perfect as the confused and insecure Robbie. He was made for the role ... well, actually, perhaps the role was made for him?
Yee, who was in the audience for Monday's opening night show, was commissioned to write the play for Trinity, which has been in the works for several years. Yee, according to Trinity's associate artistic director Tyler Dobrosky "is one of the most produced new playwrights in the country" — entirely understandable given the clever, contemporary, snappy, witty dialogue that zips through the 90-minute, fast-paced, gem of a play.
When we first meet Robbie, his back is to the audience. Wearing a slim-fitting suit of black and blue, he is playing a guitar and facing an imaginary crowd of howling fans while surrounded by streams of yellow, red, green and purple tinsel sparkling down from from ceiling to stage. (I loved how Monday night's enthusiastic audience joined right in with the faux fan applause for the superstar.)
Although he appears initially to be basking in the adoration and fame, Robbie, we soon find out, is in the midst of a crisis. His hit song (the catchy song of the summer) is not only being labeled misogynistic because of its controversial lyrics, but another band is claiming Robbie plagiarized their words. How can he prove he wrote the song? Does the tape he made in high school — back when the song had its beginning — still exist?
Downcast, anxious, lost and confused, Robbie sneaks away as the concert is over and heads all the way to Pottsville, Penna. — in a cab — and into the living room of Mrs. C., who is thrilled to see her former student. As always, Scurria gives a stellar performance. She is hilarious — and touching and perfect— as she shares Utz pretzels, along with updates and gossip about Pottstville. There's the "Indian family," who's moved to town, she tells Robbie, and the woman who came out as a lesbian, and oh those, Irish Catholics. Not so funny, and part of Yee's way of weaving the reality of small town America into her play, are the struggling meth addicts. Yee is very good at touching on thorny issues without hammering them home.
Meanwhile, Robbie's manager Joe (Joe Wilson, Jr. is genius) finds him and reminds him of his upcoming blockbuster record deal. The two meet at a Waffle House to figure things out while Joe (who, we are told, was once a member of the Four Tops) feasts on syrupy waffles that are "smothered, buttered and covered" while he tries to make things right.
Wilson, a master sound, move and face-maker, has several outstanding moments and brings down the house more than once. The fast-forward, re-wind moments, in which they all participate ... along with the stage hands ... are wonderful.
As the characters dive into the past and resurface back to the present, we're inspired to think about lost dreams, stardom, fame, success and the meaning of family.
The sets, from the Waffle House to the living room to the tinsel-laden stage, are clever and simple and worthy of note ... as is Magar's crisp, sensitive directing. Don't miss this play and remember, when in doubt, jump!