Sing Street World Premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop
February 1, 2020 | By Gillian Brown
“Who the hell are you to tell me what to do? / You wear a dress and tell me not to wear brown shoes.” The makeup is bright neon and the costumes are wild. The economy is failing and people are out of jobs. Political unrest stirs in the streets and in the churches. New wave and punk rock are the language of the youth. Welcome to Dublin in the 1980s. Welcome to Sing Street.
Sing Street, based on the 2016 film of the same name, had its world premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop last December and is set to open on Broadway on April 19, 2020. Directed by Rebecca Taichman, the musical follows 16-year-old Conor as he forms a band to impress a mysterious girl and navigates the trials of high school in 1980s Dublin.
Photos Courtesy of New York Theatre Workshop
The band names itself “Sing Street” as a clever play on their school’s name, Synge Street CBS. The production features a minimalist set and a single backdrop, utilizing lighting and a few props to create separate spaces. In every scene, the Irish sea beckons in the distance.
The country’s deep in a recession, Conor’s parents are separating, and his new headmaster is a priest with a power complex. But when Conor puts on his headphones, the audience is with him as he escapes to a fantastical world of eighties new wave synth. The rest of the real world falls away. In addition to hits by Duran Duran, the Cure, and Depeche Mode, the musical features all the brilliantly written songs from the movie (written by Gary Clark and John Carney), along with a small handful of new ones and reprises.
Brenock O’Connor is perfect as Conor, the nervous but endearing lead singer who eventually comes into his own. The film and TV actor, best known as Olly from Game of Thrones, is a natural on the stage and has strong vocal skills. His confidence comes through during the show’s musical performances and he approaches each scene with fresh-faced sincerity.
Gus Halper opens the show as Brendan, Conor’s supportive, house-bound older brother. He serves as a music connoisseur and wingman to his younger brother, offering advice on everything, from musical styles to life philosophies. Despite only singing in the show’s closer, Go Now, Halper commands a strong voice and gives Brendan depth in his moving performance.
Zara Devlin, the only Irish native in the cast, plays the young aspiring model Raphina. Although not the strongest voice on the stage, Devlin makes up for it with her beautiful portrayal of a self-described “happy-sad” teenager with a long history of abuse. The musical expands more on Raphina’s backstory and succeeds in making her more than just another damsel in distress.
An obvious highlight is Drive It Like You Stole It, the upbeat, head-banging audience pleaser. “You gotta grab the wheel and own it / And drive it like you stole it,” the band sings in their hilariously accurate retro getup.
Another highlight is Anne L. Nathan’s lovingly heartfelt performance as Sandra, the supportive mother of one of the band members. She’s the only adult to fully support Sing Street and is the one who gives Barry, the school bully, a new outlet by giving him piano lessons.
Martin Moran plays Brother Baxter, the principal of the Christian Brothers school Conor attends and complete foil to Sandra. The show tries to further develop his character, but he still lacks depth by the end. Much like in the movie, the priest is representative of the Catholic Church’s abuse of power in Ireland and serves as the story’s main antagonist.
At times, the show attempts to humanize him, or at least allow the audience a glimpse into his headspace. However, he’s too back-and-forth: a wishy-washy character lacking a real backbone. In the same scene where Baxter lets the band compete in a music competition, he scolds Conor for his brown shoes that violate the school dress code. It’s a complete tonal shift that doesn’t feel intentional and is sloppily written. It isn’t until midway through the show that Baxter becomes the menacing tyrant he is in the film. All of the priest’s scenes seem to further develop another character rather than his own. Baxter needs to be established as an antagonist earlier on or get a better backstory altogether.
The performance energy peaks during Brown Shoes, the rebellious ’80s rock anthem at the climax of the show. Cast members run through the audience, and form a line downstage, singing directly to the audience. “The boot's on the other foot now / Buckle up, we're taking you down,” Conor and the band scream into their microphones. Each actor completely owns it with their outrageous costume and colorful makeup.
This is a turning point — it’s when the boys finally stand up to Baxter. In all its glorious teen angst, it’s a giant “screw you” to everyone: the priest, the adults, the country, or any figure of authority who has tried to diminish their spirit. For such a monumental moment, the performance needs something else to make it more visually interesting. The production surprisingly leaves out the paper masks of Baxter’s face as shown in the movie; imagery like this would’ve helped emphasized the rebellion of the song. The number needs a visual symbol of the dramatic revolt.
The musical talent and performance energy is there for each and every song. However, some of the staging and choreography needs to be reworked. Most of the songs sung by the band are staged concert style, with minimal choreography. Some exceptions are Up and Girls, where the show takes a more theatrical approach with overlapping scenes.
Up is a beautifully uplifting number that highlights O’Connor’s deep vocals and Devlin’s acting chops. A Beautiful Sea makes a splash as the band’s second music video; it is pure joy onstage. To Find You is the first number to feature the adults, who lament about their troubles in a sorrowful song that draws comparisons between the two generations.
Girls, a catchy earworm about teen angst and young love, is probably the most well-staged number of the show. Conor’s older sister, Anne (Skyler Volpe), frustrated with her splintering family and university studies, pounds her fists on the table in raging thuds that become the electric drumbeat for the song. The band emerges from stage right and sings its heart out. Conor’s father, Robert (Billy Carter), and mother, Penny (Amy Warren), appear, distraught in the aftermath of a heated fight. Carter and Warren’s emotional performances make this number even more raw and cathartic.
Girls becomes the soundtrack to Conor’s entire family’s emotional breakdown. During a time of such division between the generations, this number draws comparisons between the two. The scene uses music to dive deeper into the characters’ emotional states, rather than be just another toe-tapping crowd pleaser like so many of the other songs.
The entire ensemble, with their killer music talents and boyish looks, have an excellent energy and give it their all. The show could benefit from expanding more on their characters, who only have a handful of lines and one-dimensional personalities. The band’s made up of misfit outcasts that represent Ireland’s youth — the show should embrace it.
The dialogue scenes are the only places where it drags. The show can’t seem to decide exactly what it wants to say; it has an idea, but that spark is never fully fleshed out. The workings of a great show are there. The book just needs to be reworked to convey more cohesive themes.
Sing Street ultimately explores the power of music and love during a time of both stagnation and cultural revolution, as well as power structures on the brink of collapse. For a piece set nearly 40 years ago, so much of the sentiment still rings true. The show really has a lot of potential; just like the film, it’s full of heart and feel-good ’80s nostalgia. There’s humor, romance, joy, and that painful sting of soul-crushing heartbreak that makes for great music.
“So here we are,” Brendan sings in the final number as he strums a guitar. “We've got another chance for life.” Hopefully in its Broadway transfer, Sing Street will seize its second chance at life.
Photos Courtesy of New York Theatre Workshop