Perhaps the most significant thing I took away from It Shoulda Been You, the possibly Broadway-bound new musical currently on stage at Village Theatre, was a coy little card decorated with a scroll-work border and printed with two sentences. It had been slipped to me along with my press ticket.
I had been warned about this little card by one of my drama critic colleagues.
“Sssshh…” the card read. “For the enjoyment of future audiences, we ask that in your reviewing, you please keep the big reveal in It Shoulda Been You secret. Thank you!”
Sadly, the “big reveal” is not exactly worthy of such secrecy. And yet, it could have made for an astonishing and extremely brave musical on its own, had it not been relegated to a cheap shocker used to close Act One.
Indeed, my fellow critic, who works for the Seattle — let’s call it the Seattle Sssshh… News — was disappointed that she had been enjoined not to let her readers in on the secret. The majority of them are Sssshh… themselves, and the surprise in It Shoulda Been You is both topical and empowering.
Leaving the plot twist aside, It Shoulda Been You tells a charming but highly clichéd story about the lavish wedding of a Jewish bride and a Catholic groom. Conceived by composer Barbara Anselmi several years ago while she was training at the well-regarded BMI workshop, the musical is ripe with catchy, clever tunes, and overripe with recycled plot devices from every wedding movie that has graced the silver screen since the original Father of the Bride.
In a deliciously tasteless but fancy hotel with gilt-edged everything, two incompatible families bicker and butt heads, the bride struggles with cold feet, the wedding planner is expectedly fab-yoo-luss, and the ugly duckling sister of the bride must hold everything together with a long-suffering smile while inside she is cursing in frustration. When the ex-boyfriend of the bride gets wind of the wedding, of course he charges in to break up the nuptials.
But not for the reason that you think. It’s because the bride and groom are actually both — Sssshh…!
Seen through the eyes of the bride's lovely and zaftig sister Jenny (Kat Ramsburg), It Shoulda Been You skillfully captures the emotional conflict of a still-single woman in her 30s who is caught up in the mayhem of an overblown wedding that isn’t her own. Ramsburg’s got a set of pipes that could put Ethel Merman in her place. Her smart, sensitive, full-throated interpretation of Jenny is just one of over a dozen first-rate performances offered by the hard working cast.
Kudos also go to director Jon Kretzu, imported from Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland to fill the shoes of celebrity director David Hyde Pierce, who headed the musical’s October 2011 world premiere in New Jersey. You know — Niles Crane from TV’s Frasier.
Hyde Pierce also happens to be the husband of the show's book and lyrics writer, Brian Hargrove.
For his part, Hargrove does his darndest with a text that is besmirched with the fingerprints of the whole handful of lyricists who came before him. A number of writers contributed lyrics to Anselmi's songs between her time at the BMI workshop and her initial work with Hargrove more than three years later. It Shoulda Been You went through still more revisions after it was showcased as a work in development during Village Theatre’s 2010 Festival of New Musicals. There the staged read-through was also directed by Kretzu before making its world premiere in New Jersey.
Hargrove managed to bring a unified voice to the songs, but the book feels as though it’s been handed around as carelessly as the microphone during the drunken toasts at a reception. There may be more revisions to come. The printed program currently being distributed to audiences, for what is its second professional production, worryingly refers to the musical as “a new work in development” whose scenes and songs are subject to change.
It Shoulda Been You's flaws are made more frustrating by Village Theatre's nearly-flawless execution of the show, in both music and acting. Ramsburg (who originated Jenny in the 2010 festival) is more than matched by Leslie Law as the quintessential Jewish mother, Jayne Muirhead as the acerbic and boozy mother of the groom, Joshua Carter as nice Jewish boy/ex-boyfriend Marty, Mara Solar as the suspiciously nauseated bride, Timothy Wilson as Catholic groom Brian (who amusingly “speaks Yiddish like he learned it from a nun”) and Aaron C. Finley and Diana Huey as the happy couple's respective — Sssshh…!
The set, created by Carey Wong, marries an elegant simplicity with the technical complexity necessary for staging the sort of multi-location Hollywood screenplay that the book evokes. The characters are constantly dashing between rooms in the hotel, and Wong’s filmy, aqua-curtained set comes complete with helpful placards denoting whose room we are now in, along with the obligatory crystal chandelier, tapestry swathed furniture, and marble floors of today’s grand hotel-cum-wedding venue.
Tim Symons’ musical direction is so seamless that it is a delightful shock to realize again and again that there are real musicians in that pit, and they are expertly blowing the roof off the theater each night. It can’t be emphasized enough that Anselmi is a rock-solid talent when it comes to creating bright musical frameworks for very authentic characters to inhabit.
She has clearly invested her considerable talent in polishing the heck out of It Shoulda Been You, and her artistic commitment is both an inspiration and a caution. This is because the problematic plot is impossible to overlook. The musical could be the successor to Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal, which also came out of Village Theatre’s development program, if only Anselmi and Hargrove would reject the cute clichés and bravely embrace the Sssshh…
If you go: It Shoulda Been You is on stage in Issaquah through April 22. It moves to Village Theatre’s Everett stage for an engagement running April 27–May 20. $20-$62. For more information, visit www.villagetheatre.org.