What Sing Street gets right, it gets really right, and most of that has to do with music: how we live inside it, how we express ourselves through it, how unbelievably important it is as a tool for discovering your individuality as a teenager. From the musical’s very first moment, where Conor (a delightful Brenock O’Connor) is completely absorbed in trying to figure out the inner workings of the song on his Walkman (Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough,” arranged here for the ensemble by Martin Lowe), Enda Walsh (book), John Carney (writer and director of the 2016 film on which the play is based, along with the better-known Once), and Gary Clark (music & lyrics along with Carney) get the intensity of how music rules you. They get the joy of creation and the way being in a band, even the cheesiest, dumbest band, frees something inside you and makes you brave; and they get the way cultural trends—in this case the flamboyant excess of New Wave—can be a conduit for self-expression. (For boys, anyway; the band may start as a lie Conor made up to impress the mysterious girl who loiters by the phone booth outside their school, Raphina (Zara Devlin), but outside of her, Walsh and Carney aren’t particularly interested in the experience girls might be having.) The band is composed of Catholic schoolboys at the “free school” to which Conor’s been transferred when his parents, like everyone else in Dublin in 1982, fall on hard economic times. They’re an indistinguishable mass in their gray uniforms, but Sing Street (the name of the band as well as the show) gives them a way to find color–so much color; the New Romantic outfits, designed by Bob Crowley, that the boys put together for themselves, are sheer delight–and individuality and friendship. Even Conor’s older brother, Brendan (Gus Halper), so demoralized by the state of Ireland and his life that he’s become a recluse, lights up and displays his expertise when he’s got music to talk about.
Director Rebecca Taichman keeps the ensemble of boys feeling like boys, too: tentative and unsure and open, even the cocky ones, inexperienced enough not to even act cool when they’re playing their instruments. (Alongside O’Connor, Max William Bartos, who plays the band’s “manager” and fixer, Darren, is a standout, a baby-faced lad who gets stuff done through sheer nerve.)
The original songs manage to find a plausible middle ground between being terrible songs that could have been dreamed up by a bunch of inexperienced kids modeling off one-hit wonders and daring to imagine they could be Duran Duran, and actual catchy New Wave tunes that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to have been a fan of in the 1980s, if, you know, you were alive in the 1980s. (I did find myself wondering how much of the audience would recognize the whirring sound of a cassette Walkman rewinding.) I’m on the fence, still, about the decision to toss in a dash of jukebox musical–the arrangements of the old hits are beautifully done, and there is something compelling about the way they braid with the original music at times, but it also feels a little like fan service. And I dearly wish we got to see the videos that the band is always shooting (Conor lures Raphina on the promise of starring in their video, and they just don’t stop).
But as enjoyable as watching the band come together is the rest of the show feels pretty thin. Walsh, Carney, and Clark struggle to find songs for the non-band characters. There’s not a lot of human relationships here, either; Brendan’s attempts to make sure Conor winds up less damaged than himself are moving, but everything else, even Conor’s relationship with Raphina, feels rote. Outside of Darren, the band members are mostly defined by a trait apiece–one keeps rabbits; one struggles to grow a mustache–and their school foil, Barry (Johnny Newcomb), a hard boy with the soul of a pianist, gets a cursory subplot. (There’s some interesting potential in the subtle class differences among the group, but that too isn’t really developed.) And they’re fleshed out compared to all the women, especially Conor’s sister, Anne (Skyler Volpe, who spends far too much of the play looking on from the sidelines or grumbling about noise), and adults in the play (Conor’s divorcing parents; the one-note martinet Brother Baxter, Conor’s nemesis at school; and Sandra, the local piano teacher/mother of one of the band members, who lends her living room for band practice). Even Raphina feels more like a generic muse, a cipher seen through Conor’s adolescent imagination, with a smattering of a tragic past and some truly excellent sunglasses, than a real love interest.
And while 1982 shines through the music and the costumes and Sonya Tayeh’s choreography, the sense of time and place didn’t otherwise feel real. Bob Crowley’s ocean backdrop, lit with enormous and subtle variation by Christopher Akerlind, is stunning, but doesn’t convey the kind of grinding despair that’s eating these people alive, or their desperation to leave. Too much is gestured at, rather than realized.
Still, the show, and the ensemble, have charm to spare, and it comes alive when the boys’ instruments come out. But there’s nothing particularly original about seeing a bunch of boys struggle for self-definition, even with the nostalgic kick of my own youth thrown into the mix. And even while I was thoroughly enjoying the boys thoroughly enjoying themselves and rocking out, I won’t forget Anne and Sandra sitting on the side benches, outside the action.