New Musical: 'Bright Lights,' Big Pity Despite fine cast, rock version of McInerney's novel is clone of 'Rent'
By David Kaufman
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY. Music, book and lyrics by Scott Goodman. With Jacqueline Arnold, Carla Bianco, Natascia Diaz, Jerry Dixon, John Link Graney, Napiera Daniele Groves, Liza Lapira, Ken Marks, Kerry O'Malley, Annmarie Milazzo and Patrick Wilson. Directed by Michael Greif. Scenery by Paul Clay. Costumes by Angela Wendt. Lighting by Blake Burba. At the New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. Fourth St.
The novel you had to read in 1984, which became a movie to avoid in 1988, is today a musical you might want to see. If you are a hard-core rock musical fan, you will have to catch "Bright Lights, Big City." Ditto if you're interested in seeing several energetic newcomers bound for glory down the road. But if your goal is to know why Jay McInerney's novel is something of a cult classic, you would be best advised to read the book.
At least part of the excitement preceding "BLBC's" opening at the New York Theatre Workshop last night was that the same vital Off-Broadway company launched "Rent" a couple of seasons back. It even recruited the same director, Michael Greif, to work with Paul Scott Goodman, who wrote the music, book and lyrics for "BLBC."
They should have considered that lightning never strikes twice in the same place. In the process of trying to replicate "Rent's" success, "BLBC" resembles nothing so much as an inferior clone.
Set a decade ago in New York, "BLBC" is still the story of a 24-year-old writer, Jamie, who seems to have it all: a gorgeous wife who's a high-profile model, a job with a prestigious literary magazine, a best friend who is well-connected to the current scene.
But Jamie is addicted to cocaine, and he loses everything during the course of the week in which the story takes place. While the tale unfolds in "a comet trail of white powder," Jamie ultimately realizes just how empty and alienating the glamorous world of mid-'80s New York is.
Unfortunately, the musical is also alienating in at least one nagging respect. Unable to find a musical equivalent for McInerney's clipped and intriguing narrative voice, Goodman interjects himself into the musical as a roaming troubadour to tell the story. But from the opening moments, his thick Scottish accent is at cross-purposes with what is quintessentally a New York tale.
Goodman's sung-through score has its occasional high points. But the most soaring musical passages (in the title number, as well as in "Coma Baby," "Brother" and "Kindness") are unsustained and short-lived.
The members of the young and spirited 11-person ensemble should be cultivated by casting agents, however.
There are discoveries to be made in the naive but anguished Jamie of Patrick Wilson and in two of Jamie's co-workers, played by Carla Bianco and Kerry O'Malley. Napiera Daniele Groves also stands out as Jamie's wife, as does John Link Graney as his brother. The best of all is Natascia Diaz, whose powerful, crystalline voice takes center stage late in the play.
While the flashy lighting design by Blake Burba and the busy period costumes by Angela Wendt deserve praise as well, this would-be exclusive property is strictly lower-"Rent."