Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The most recent addition to that impressive roster is The Song of Summer, now at Mixed Blood Theatre after its world premiere last March at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island. The Song of Summer is a delight, wistful romantic comedy about missed opportunities and the rarity of second chances. It is levitated by with ace performances by leads Dustin Bronson and Elyse Ahmad, along with fully fleshed out supporting turns by Maggie Pistner and Gavin Lawrence.
The song in the title refers to a song by Robbie (Dustin), once a young piano protégé who has taken to rock guitar and landed the number one hit across the nation, a song with a hook that won't let go, the song that is in constant radio play, defining the summer for pop music listeners. Robbie is performing cross country in a hot-ticket tour of major venues, appearing in tight jeans and a gold lamé dinner jacket over a fishnet t-shirt. This is a huge change for Robbie, who before this burst of fame was a server in a Tacoma bar where Joe (Lawrence), now Robbie's manipulative manager, was a bartender. However, trouble is nipping at their heels. A protest is bubbling over that claims that the song is "rapey, " with its refrain "I'm gonna empower you to make a bad decision." On top of that are threats of a lawsuit from a black music group who claim Robbiea bonafide white guy from Pottsville, Pennsylvaniasubconsciously plagiarized a song they wrote.
With the pressure mounting, Robbie bails on the tour and retreats to the home of his childhood music teacher, warm-hearted Mrs. C. (Pistner), the self-proclaimed old hippie who nurtured Robbie's gift for piano. Not coincidently, Mrs. C.'s daughter Tina (Ahmad) was Robbie's best friend when they were kids. Might they have been more than best friends? The question haunts Robbie, who has not been back to Pottsville since his family moved to Tacoma twelve years ago. Feeling like an imposter in the role of gyrating god of rock, and experiencing sorrow over his lost chance of happiness with Tina, Robbie relives their last time together, on Tina's sixteenth birthday.
If you are looking for substance, The Song of Summer offers themes of being your authentic self, of the price we pay for failing to express our true feelings, and of the shadow regrets the past can cast upon our lives. But at bottom, this is a comedya very funny, good-hearted comedy written with tenderness for its characters and sympathy for the way they have tripped over their own hopes.
Yee's characters are appealing, even if Robbie is written to be a bit more dim-witted than necessary. Believe me, lots of sixteen-year-old boys miss the cues cast their way by girls and wrap themselves in blankets of self-doubt, without having to be dumb. Tina, on the other hand, is sharp as a tack, with a sarcastic bent, uncommonly cool and forthright. In other words, far on the other end of the see-saw from Robbie. One can imagine how she finds Robbie's sweetness to be endearing, but not much more. And yet, Yee manages to make everything that happensand doesn't happenfeel true. If the final resolution seems a bit of a stretch, it fits easily into the confines of the romantic comedy genre.
Dustin Bronson has a complete read on Robbie, capturing all of his insecurities, his impossible hopes, and his well-mannered awkwardness. We see the remains of his sixteen-year-old self in his discomfited adulthood. He brings terrific physical comedy chops to the role, raising gales of laughter as a teenager desperately trying to control his body's urges. Elyse Ahmad is equally persuasive as Tina, hiding her disappointments under a torrent of words and a veil of sarcasm. She conveys this early on with her cynical explanation of why Pottsville is a town and not a city. Both actors are attractive and the sparks that ignite between them feel authentic.
Maggie Pistner is a delight as Mrs. C., warmly welcoming Robbie back without a kernel of judgment, as she waxes nostalgic over the years in which he was her prize pupil, while she gives unconditional love to her daughter. Gavin Lawrence offers a nice take as Joe, smart enough to see the way through the minefields in Robbie's career, but not so smart as to convince us he can avoid stepping on them. It is clear that he sees Robbie as his meal ticket, and isn't about to give that up, yet he exudes an underlying kindness that makes us feel he is, at heart, a good guy.
Addie Gorlin has directed The Song of Summer with an easy touch, allowing the humorous and the heartfelt elements to rise naturally and blend together through the narrative and characters. The physical production works well. An-Lin Dauber designed appropriate costumes, including Robbie's tasteless rock-star garb, as well as the multi-level set, focusing around Mrs. C's amazingly cluttered living roomperfect for a woman who keeps everything.
Theatergoers who saw Yee's The Great Leap at the Guthrie last spring know that she has keen insights into cultural assimilation and appropriation, drawing on her Chinese ancestry. In Song of Summer she offers a frisky and good-hearted comedy that only in passing touches upon cultural stereotypes. Its story emanates from two human beings who reveal their hopes, their strengths, and their failings to us, and ultimately to each other. It makes clear that Lauren Yee is not one of our best young Chinese-American, or Asian-American playwrights, but simply one of our best young playwrightsperiod.
The Song of Summer is a truly enjoyable ninety minutes of theater, given a boost by the comic gold mined by actors Dustin Bronson and Elyse Ahmad. I heartily recommend it.
The Song of Summer runs through November 24, 2019, at at Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis MN. Guaranteed tickets: $35.00; Radical Hospitality: free admission on first come, first serve basis starting two hours before performance time. For information and tickets, visit mixedblood.com or call 612-338-6131.
Playwright: Lauren Yee; Director: Addie Gorlin; Set and Costume Design: An-Lin Dauber; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Sound Design: Scott Edwards; Properties Design: Abbe Warmboe; Assistant Director and Intimacy Consultant: Sophie Peyton; Stage Manager: Raúl Ramos; Assistant Stage Manager: Jorge Rodriguez-Sosa.
Cast: Elyse Ahmad (Tina), Dustin Bronson (Robbie), Gavin Lawrence (Joe), Maggie Pistner (Mrs. C.), Gabe Shenoy (Brett).