ARTSMONDAY: 'Bright Lights' Ultimately Heartwarming

Carlton E. Forbes

Considering the show’s tough exterior, the cast of “Bright Lights, Big City” gave a suprisingly uplifting performance last Monday at the Adams House Pool Theatre. The show was directed by Mary E. Birnbaum ’07.

About a third of the way into “Bright Lights, Big City,” a musical based on the 1984 era-defining novel by Jay McInerney, I had to face a hard truth. This play was not going to make me cool.

There had been high hopes for cool, at least initially. The play is set in Manhattan during the 80s. It takes place almost entirely in clubs and the offices of nifty little literary magazines. Most of its characters are coke addicts. It’s playing in the Adams Pool House Theatre, which used to be an actual swimming pool where Harvard’s artsy types would skinny dip and swap STDs.

But as it turns out, “Bright Lights, Big City,” with book, music, and lyrics by Paul Scott Goodman, is a show that doesn’t buy its own hype. In fact, it’s a surprisingly big-hearted work, a story of redemption in the face of vapid, pretentious hedonism. And while this production, directed by Mary E. Birnbaum ’07 and produced by Barry A. Shafrin ‘09, may not always understand the scene it tries to portray, it more than gets by on its sincere belief in the value of familial love.

The show’s weary, nervous hero is Jamie, portrayed with terrific emotional depth by Arlo D. Hill ’08. A writer in the process of throwing away his talents on clubs, coke, and a supermodel named Amanda (Lauren L. Jackson ’07), Jamie is sick of the “scene” before it’s even begun.

His opening lines, “I am not the kind of guy / Who should be in a place like this / At this time of the morning,” begin a cycle of events that will drive the show. First event: Jamie goes out, gets high, and watches his personal life fall apart a little. Second event: Jamie gets it together and thinks about his mother. Repeat.

Hill is good at playing both the vain, ladder-climbing scenester and the alienated kid from the suburbs desperate for real affection, even if he does rely a little too much on his expressive lower lip and jaw-tightening capabilities. What’s most impressive–aside from his absolutely terrific singing–is how well he carries a show that calls so much attention to its cast.

Rehearsed in a whirlwind, two-week period, “Bright Lights, Big City” is called “a staged concert” rather than a musical on the program. The cast, which remains onstage throughout the show, makes use of music stands and reads from scripts. The lights are simple, and the set is even simpler—there is none.

This kind of production style, with its “Pure. Unadulterated. Theater.” aesthetic, can be self-righteous if done poorly, but Birnbaum’s direction is never obtrusive. What’s more, the show’s hard-rockin’ musical score would be ill-served by elaborate set pieces or complicated dance numbers. Better to let the show’s black-clad ensemble cast move a little, rock out when things get loud, and leave it at that.

But about the black-clad thing: The show’s portrayal of Manhattan’s Lower East Side club scene is woefully if harmlessly inaccurate. The cast members move like the kids from “Grease,” and the fashions of the times are reduced to a checkered tie. While I sympathize with the difficulties of a two-week rehearsal schedule, someone should have taken the time to find a few Duran Duran videos on YouTube.

Fortunately, most of the clubbing is over by the time “Bright Lights, Big City” enters its second half. Here, Jamie meets a nice philosophy student named Vicky (Talisa B. Friedman ’10), begins communicating with his estranged brother Michael (played by Michael Joyce), and finally deals with the memory of his dead mother, played by Tatiana K. Wilson ’09.

These three characters make up a kind of redemptive trinity for Jamie, and together they form the emotional core of the show. Friedman plays Vicky as a kind of idealistic realist—someone who wishes there were more kindness in the world, but knows the people she cares about will let her down. She turns out to be exactly what Jamie needs to get over Amanda, whose hard-partying, supermodel life eventually destroys her.

Likewise, Joyce’s performance as Jamie’s younger brother is surprising without calling too much attention to itself. The psychological smallness of someone living in the shadow of his older sibling is immediately recognizable and quite touching, and his voice, which breaks in all the right places, is a powerful emotional vehicle.

But it is Wilson who stands head and shoulders above everyone else in the cast. Hers is the best performance I’ve seen at Harvard this year. Her final song, “Are You Still Holding My Hand,” recalls her dying words to Jamie, and it’s completely heartbreaking. One line in particular–“Have you had many lovers / I’ve never heard their names”–should be impossible to pull off; instead, it is the show’s most powerful moment.

As an emotionally impotent, unfeeling critic, I didn’t cry, but had I had a few glasses of wine in me at the time, it would have been all over.

“Bright Lights, Big City,” is an awkwardly written show to begin with, and when this cast tries to run with the cool kids, the results can be hard to watch. But that’s probably not an alien experience to most Harvard students, and what this show really wants is to go home to Mom. That’s as admirable a goal as any. I’m not giving anything away when I tell you that Jamie makes it, but just because you can see the happy ending from a mile off doesn’t mean it won’t make you happy.

—Reviewer Richard S. Beck can be reached at rbeck@fas.harvard.edu.