The seven maladjusted middle-aged men of Matthew Freeman’s Glee Club all like to sing, but that’s about all they agree on. Will their agonizing pain and off-color humor drive them apart, or bring them together?
Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis
The heroes of Matthew Freeman’s Glee Club may be singing barbershop music, but as the dark comedy quickly establishes, they’re far from in perfect harmony. These are not your bright-eyed, well-groomed, cable-ready singers; these are creepy introverts, weepy cancer survivors, unemployed alcoholics, and divorced, bankrupt fathers. They swear too much, threaten to disembowel one another, make ill-mannered homophobic jokes, and storm offstage after losing arguments.
They've gathered to prepare for the next evening's recital, but with their best singer absent, they'll have to muddle through instead. The conductor Ben (Stephen Speights), not so much a fearless leader as a bad-tempered nitpicker, abruptly interrupts any attempt at singing, spouting complaints about harmony or timing. When Hank (Tom Staggs) finally arrives, he’s incapable of a pitch-perfect performance.
As alliances form and conspiracies develop to push Hank back into his singing groove, the level of cutthroat dedication to this glee club becomes clear, pathos at its most comical. It’s the perfect setting for a clash of personalities, and strong, original personalities are where Freeman’s writing shines. Take Paul (Steven Burns), for example, a frail and monotone guy whose deadpan non-sequiturs have knack of breaking the tension. Just as fun to watch, if even more offbeat, is Stan (Matthew Trumbull), and his quavering, meek deliveries: a rambling question, followed by an apology, and then an onslaught of explanation. Together Burns and Trumbull set the standard for the cast’s chemistry, most of which rise to the challenge. Speights’ Ben explodes with red-faced outbursts, egocentric male diva Nick (David DelGrosso) has a complaint about everything, and eager-to-please, off-key Fred (Bruce Barton) just wants a chance at the solo.
Each character has an empty and despondent life, filled with disease, divorce, and/or debt. While the leads are built up enough for these flourishes to help, they reduce the co-stars to a string of sarcastic or shock-factor superfluous one-liners. Freeman’s dialogue here does little more than riff off the more original, standout roles, and don’t have much use. Mark (Robert Buckwalter) is constantly on the phone with his ex-wife’s lawyer, and Greg (Carter Jackson) may or may not be dying of cancer, both repeating the same melodramatic laments over and over again. Regardless, director Kyle Ancowitz still manages to draw impressive, real performances out of every actor. The characters exhibit startling tension as they get angry, gossip, raise their voices and then simmer down again. The friendships formed at the Glee Club of Romeo, Vermont, however mangled and dysfunctional, are also clearly genuine.
Despite such depressing material, the script succeeds in being laugh-out-loud funny, which can also be attributed to the show’s original song. Speights’s “The World Will Make You Smile” is surprisingly catchy and upbeat. When Hank sets aside his personal agenda to perform the song, he nails the solo and his sweet, powerhouse tenor wins over audiences. While Glee Club is a club that harbors very little glee for its members, the play itself, as its original song promises, will make you smile.
Glee Club (One hour; no intermission)
Access Theater (380 Broadway)
Performances (Through 4/3): Weds.-Sats. @ 8pm
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