'Bright Lights' glaring, daring
New musical gives drug culture the harsh treatment it deserves
By Lawson Taitte
NEW YORK - Few musicals bother with detailed psychological characterizations. Combining those with a vibrant rock score just hasn't happened - until now. Paul Scott Goodman's Bright Lights Big City represents a real breakthrough.
Sadly most New York critics didn't get it. Bright Lights Big City debuted at the New York Theatre Workshop, the cradle of the decade's biggest rock musical, Rent. Those who put Rent together, including director Michael Greif, were in charge. Those who had anointed Rent as the 1990s' savior of musical theater seemed determined to do the new show in.
It's a pity, because this reworking of Jay McInerney's popular novel is a perfect antidote to those bummed out by Rent's irrepressible - and irresponsible - romanticism. The newer show casts a jaundiced eye on the drug culture of the 1980s. When you come out of the theater, you understand the pull of clubbing and cocaine . . . but you also have learned to count the cost.
As in the novel, hero Jamie spends his days checking facts for a magazine very like The New Yorker. He spends his nights doing drugs and chasing women. The scene is beginning to pall, but he doesn't quite know how to disengage himself.
Mr. Goodman - who wrote all the show's words and music - had to figure out how to convey the peculiar style of a novel written in the second person. His solution isn't completely convincing: The Scottish playwright-songwriter puts himself onstage, narrating the action and commenting on it.
This can be a distraction in a show that so resolutely gives us real people doing believable things. Mr. Goodman's Jamie is one of the musical stage's most complex leading characters, and having Mr. Goodman himself up there distracting us from his creation is unsettling.
That said, Bright Lights Big City is as impressive as it is exhilarating. Its songs range from the forthright "I Love Drugs" and "I Wanna Have Sex Tonight" to delightful character vignettes. The show rocks, but every word in every lyric comes across.
You can thank Mr. Greif and his dozen superb performers for that. Patrick Wilson (who played Billy Bigelow in the Royal National Theatre tour of Carousel when it played Dallas) turns in a superb performance as Jamie.
Mr. Wilson, at least, deserves to win some of this season's big prizes. Too bad he hasn't a prayer.