Say you’re a musical-theater writing duo trying to recover from the devastating failure of your first Broadway flop. What do you do? You write a musical about a former boy band star trying to recover from the devastating failure of his solo career. And like your new character, you realize it’s time to take a few steps back from the high life and end up in…Shirlington?
This summer, Neil Bartram and Brian Hill have launched their adorable, likeable comeback show at Signature Theatre. Spin stars James Gardiner as 37-year-old Evan Peterson, a one-time chart-topper who now finds himself hosting Idol Chatter, an American Idol knock-off airing on a New Jersey network affiliate. One night when he’s hoping to tryst with a fan wearing a sparkly “I (Heart) Evan T-shirt,” a young woman shows up on his doorstep, claiming to be his daughter, with his purported six-year-old grandkid in tow.
If paternity tests and an American Idol parody sound a little behind the zeitgeist, that’s because Spin is based on a 2008 Korean blockbuster called Speedy Scandal. The musical is actually a co-production with a Korean company that had a huge success with The Story of My Life, Bartram and Hill’s Broadway flop. (Just five nights in New York but a long run in Seoul, apparently.) Once the Signature run is through, Spin will be translated back into Korean. The theater is billing the show as the first in its new “siglab” series. The musical is fully staged, but on a budget, and tickets are just $30, with discounts available. Sets and choreography are minimal, the lighting seems a bit rough, there are a very few costume changes, and the four-piece orchestra could use some horns.
But everything else—from the acting to the singing to the video productions—is fantastic. Bobby Smith is Spin’s tap-dancing antagonist, a smarmy, fey entertainment reporter. Carolyn Cole, who played a Bawlmer hon so well in Hairspray, is perfect as Evan’s street-smart, Jersey-girl daughter. The lullaby she sings to her son (played by the irrepressible Holden Browne) with crooning, gentle vibrato might be the best number in the show. Bartram’s musical selections are mostly pop, but he cleverly has the Idol Chatter back-up singers (who are all terrific) double as sort of Greek chorus. “Evan, Evan, you think your life is heaven,” goes one refrain.
The lyrics could use some editing. Bartram and Hill could start by cutting nautical metaphors like, “You’re my rudder, you’re my sail.” But that suggestion comes all in the spirit of siglab. In his curtain speech, choreographer Matt Gardiner described opening night as “a chance to see how the work does in front of an audience.” I’d say it does pretty well.
Spin is on stage at Signature Theatre to July 27.