There is comfort in a familiar musical. You sing snatches of song starting a few days before you go. You see the show and all the lyrics come flooding back and fill your head for days to come, humming under your breath or full out sing-alongs on the way into work. A new musical can be even more exciting, especially the anticipation. How will song and story be integrated? Will you come away singing any of the songs? Is it a story for the ages, or a piece that will one day be dated and irrelevant? It was with this sense of excitement that I saw the world premiere of Smash/Hit at the Black Rep the night before it opened.
Normally I don’t talk about the plot, but since this is a new play, I’ll give a short outline. Two young men, Money and Chance, who are lifelong friends, are trying to make it in the music business. As hip-hop artists, they go by the moniker, No Plan B. But, as often happens, life gets in the way of dreams and Money ends up a soldier in the Iraqi war to provide for his family. Three years later he comes back with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a gun, and his dream, slightly altered. Now he wants his music to “tell the truth” of what he saw in the war but is convinced by his partner and their agent to write a song that will sell.
The story isn’t particularly new, babies come along when most inconvenient, young men go off to war and are forever changed, dreams battle with paying the bills and people routinely “sell-out” when big money is involved. I found some of the scenes to be very predictable and obvious and it didn’t help that the final dress pacing was slow, especially between scenes. The script overall could use some cutting and tightening but it is a very good effort from collaborators Steve Broadnax and Michael S. Bordner. What really sells it is the winsomeness of the lead actors, Ronald L. Conner and Matthew Galbreath and a great supporting performance by Justin Ivan Brown as their manager.
At first, Galbreath seems to be the hip-hop artist here and Conner the actor, but as the story evolves both men embrace the script and the music and by the time we get to “Big Booty,” the number that will “sell,” Conner and Galbreath have us convinced they ARE hip-hop artists and Galbreath’s portrayal of Chance’s secret life was a moment of true surprise which he handled skillfully. I’ve been enjoying all of Conner’s work this season, although I missed The Mountaintop. He is a seasoned actor with exceptional charm. Galbreath keeps pace with him though, with a sweet smile and boyish appeal. Not a huge fan of hip-hop, I found myself smiling widely during the musical numbers and could easily understand all the lyrics. Nice work guys. The set and costumes were serviceable and appropriate for the production but it was Robin Weatherall’s sound design that surprised. The sound floated around the various stage speakers; sometimes a song would be coming out of the radio on the kitchen table, then move to the overhead speakers, and then come out of DJ Supernova’s rig. It was an interesting and entertaining use of the technology. Artistic Director, Ron Himes, skillfully directed this production, especially the men’s scenes, although I wanted a bit more chemistry between Money and his girlfriend, Joi. It sometimes felt like FeliceSkye, who plays Joi, was much younger than Conner and the actors were uncomfortable with the intimacy required. Mostly, the show is a lot of fun, although there are many scenes that will make the audience uncomfortable whether due to the strong language or the gun. I found the gun very disquieting. The big ethical question I found myself asking is, “How many soldiers come home from the war with PTSD and a gun?” Doesn’t it seem strange that men and women with such a disorder would be allowed to keep their gun? The question, and that gun, gave me many moments of tsuris. But those troubling moments, and the way they are handled, are what the play is all about. And I promise you will come out of the theater singing, “Big booty, big booty, big booty, yeaaahhhh, big booty!” I know I did.