Apr

13

CMTS’s Bright Lights, Big City Flickers

Written by

The novel

 Last night, in the Lerner Black Box, Columbia Musical Theatre Society put on its rendition of Bright Lights, Big City, the musical based on Jay McInerney’s haunting novel of the same name. Conor Skelding took it as an excuse to spend extra time in Lerner.

I went into CMTS’s Bright Lights, Big City, having read and been scarred by the novel; I didn’t know somebody had made it a musical.

The story (in both iterations) follows a young, Ivy-educated fact-checker at a relevant New York magazine. The protagonist Jamie was left by his wife and is addicted to cocaine and late nights.

If I hadn’t read the novel, I am not sure if the plot would have come through; several audience members I spoke to after the show admitted difficulty following the plot.

Part of this is attributable to tech problems—there were not-infrequent mic noises. The mics, in lieu of projection, were necessary given that it was just plain hard to hear the actors and actresses. The relatively massive orchestra in a small blackbox theater couldn’t help but overpower the singers.

The central, most powerful, themes of the story came across as watered-down and trite. Repeated lyrics which were ridiculous to begin with (such as “I love drugs” and “I want to have sex tonight”) were sung with such flippancy that they made farcical the dissipated, depraved, lifestyle of the characters.

Vicky, played by Jessica Chi, CC ’15, is a Princeton philosophy major whom Jamie takes out for a date. She should be an irreverent, clever, prodding character, but as she dully repeated, “Imagine the world if everybody could just be kind,” she came off as lame. Throughout the number, Jamie nods with equal lameness, as though Vicky were speaking some profound truth.

Zach Vargas-Sullivan, CC ’14, as Jamie, gave a mixed performance. His rendition of “I Hate the French” was overwrought, and his delivery was occasionally flat. His projection lacked, and (orchestra aside) it was often hard to hear him; problematic, given that most of the exposition came through in the songs. Though much of his expression seemed contrived, he did have moments of sincerity, as when he found himself awake at 9 am in the bed of a fourteen-year-old, and in thought about his mother.

Jamie’s ecstatic reunion with his brother, Michael, played by Tommy Doyle, did not succeed in tying up the emotional distress the actors attempted to escalate throughout the play. It was forced.

Lizzy Brooks, CC ’12, was a bright spot in the role of Amanda, Jamie’s supermodel ex-wife. She projected her beautiful voice over the ensemble and orchestra to the audience, while her stage presence set her apart from the rest of the cast.

In addition, Eric Lawrence, GS/JTS ’13, was well cast as brash Tad Allagash, Jamie’s hedonistic, hard-partying friend. Clad in an undershirt, tight jeans, and a leather jacket, Lawrence threw himself into the drug-fueled ’80s club scene with panache and gusto.

Uzunma Udeh, CC ’12, played a reckless punk-rock Coma Baby, subject of the recurring NYPost story of a comatose pregnant mother’s child, which Jamie follows and hallucinates about.

Costuming was highly appropriate, Jamie’s especially—professorial in his jeans, button-down, tie, and corduroy jacket. His attire became more disheveled as he became more miserable: his shirt came untucked, his tie undone, his collar wrinkled; his emotional distress was clearly telegraphed with his clothes.

Bright Lights, Big City didn’t convey the sense of despair and wasted talent that it could have, though there were points where it approached that distress. Accordingly, it took the audience far too long to really be captured by the play. It’s worth seeing if you’re interested in hearing a few good songs and a few mediocre ones, and maybe thinking about the 1980s. Either way, read the novel.

Bright Lights, Big City runs in the Lerner Black Box tonight at 8 pm and tomorrow at 7 and 10 pm. Buy tickets online or at the TIC.

First edition via Wikipedia

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33 Comments

  1. Anonymous  

    I'm not saying this because I'm some cast memeber angry that this is a negative review, because you are totally entitled to your own opinion and honesty is (at least by me) appreciated.

    But GOD DAMN is this poorly-written. There are typos and sentence fragments everywhere, as well as sentences like this ( “Odeon,” set in a disco club, was a strong group number, set in a yuppie-club") which make no sense.

    It's also extremely disjointed and seems like the reviewer doesn't know what he's talking about. Really? You praise the costuming because it included a button-up shirt and a tie?

    Bwog can do better, surely.

  2. Alex D

    oh fuck you bwog...wtf is this? Try to support your student groups once in a while, jesus

  3. I HATE BWOG  

    STOP POSTING EVERY TWO MINUTES ABOUT SHIT NO ONE CARES ABOUT. YOU SUCK.

    TIP: POST LESS FREQUENTLY ON EVENTS OF SIGNIFICANCE AND ON EVENTS OF SIGNIFICANCE ONLY!!!! THEN YOU MIGHT ACTUALLY HAVE DISCUSSION IN THE COMMENTS SESSION. BUT AN ARTICLE ABOUT HOW THERE WAS A 2 CM CRACK ON THE RAMP OF LERNER ON THE FIFTH FLOOR EVERY THIRTY SECONDS WITH LIKE 1 COMMENT ISNT WORKING OUT FOR ANYONE.

    I EARNESTLY JUST WANT TO READ GOOD ARTICLES POSTED EVERY SO OFTEN AND HAVE A NICE DIALOGUE IN THE COMMENT SECTION. HONESTLY, IM ON YOUR SIDE. SO STOP WITH THIS MOTHERFUCKING BULLSHIT.

    - SIGNED,
    THE INTERNETS

  4. The Audience  

    Was the aim of this review to denigrate the show by writing a critique sloppier and more thoughtless than the show itself? This review had legitimate points, but it didn't have to be written in such a disrespectful way.

    • Agreed  

      It's dismaying to read a review this dismissive of student work. I'm sure the creative team and cast would appreciate fair criticism, but the reviewer's attitude here is unfortunate and not conducive to starting a conversation.

  5. Andrew Wright (CMTS Member)

    Hi all,

    I music directed the show. I want to point out a few issues with the way this review was written. We as a team love to hear constructive criticism. However, I feel this review did not give BLBC any true constructive feedback.

    First off, this musical is NOT the book. There are clear plot differences (which we as a creative team understood). For example, the character of Vicky in the show is not the "irreverent, clever" character simply because she just isn't developed in the show. We understand that the show had limitations with the book, score, and lyrics. It is simply hard to follow. If you took it as a piece of theatre, this review would only look at the plot our show had (For example Tad doesn't have a last name in the show). In all other musicals that go from book to stage, there are clear plot differences. Sometimes even characters are erased or added (Look at Wicked... there isn't much witch sex on stage). This is part of the theatrical process of adaptation. You unfairly held our production up to the book. It had no possibility of meeting it.

    Secondly, this is not a review of the production but instead of the material. We, due to legal issues, cannot change what an author writes. Going into this process, we knew that this show was not perfect. However, I personally take pride in how our cast and creative team put together an excellent performance of a mediocre show. You should have described how each actor portrayed these characters instead of holding them up to some impertinent expectation. Though I strongly disagree, you give a legitimate reason for why you thought Zach's performance was mediocre. I personally thought he excelled given the limited material he had. However, by saying that Jessica Chi didn't equate to the book's character, you simply are missing the point of a review. You should have written about how she capture the essence of this version of Vicky.

    You also did not mention the choreography, an important aspect of the show. Olivia Peluso (BC '13) did an excellent job portraying the confusion and simply insane time of the 80s. A good review would touch on all of these points.

    As for the pit, I agree there were sound issues. However, a 6 person pit is not too large. We had the band hooked up to the sound system so that we could control volume levels. There were parts of the theatre that we couldn't adapt sound for because we couldn't move monitors or speakers. However, we resolved the sound issue at tonight's performance.

    As a member of the theatre community, I want to say one thing: Bwog does not respect nor understand the amount of work that goes into a theatrical production. We all work 5+ days a week for approximately 20 hours a week (more hours than you are in class) to give the Columbia community a great show. All I ask is that you respect that and keep that in consideration when writing reviews. When Alex Katz (CC '14) writes them, he takes this all into account. He understands minor flaws. Why? Because he is an actor.

    I thank everyone who came to our show. We hope you enjoyed it and we thank you for supporting CMTS and the Columbia community.

  6. V-Show Cast Member  

    I didn't get an opportunity to see the show, but I know that no student theater group should be subject to a scalding review such as this, nor one in which the writer can't discern between "to" and "too." It's okay to be critical, but sloppily dismissing genre in lieu of having read a novel (although after reading this review I'm skeptical that you actually can read) and calling the craft of your peers "forced" and "flat" is excessive, especially since ticket sales are often minimal for CMTS performances. If you understood the first thing about on-campus musicals not written by students, you'd realize that these actors can't control the way a character is written. BLBC is an inherently lackluster show and CMTS maybe should have chosen something better, but don't blame that on the actors -- actually, just stop writing altogether, especially about theater.

  7. Member of Theatre Community  

    I have to agree. As a member of the theatre community, it is both disheartening and a bit appalling that theatre reviews are written so poorly by both Bwog and Spectator because students with no knowledge on how the theatre works and what goes into a show are writing these reviews. These weak and uninformed reviews simply drive students away from student theatre in general, and give students a reason to "hate" on student theatre groups and their performances.

    These reviews should not be an outlet for a frustrated Columbia student or want-to-be-writers to bash on something that students spend semesters working on—I'm not saying these writers should just say that everything about the show was perfect, but there is a difference between nasty "hating on", and constructive and educated criticism. Often, these reviews fall into the former.

    I'm not going to talk about the stylistic and technical pitfalls of this review, but I would like to point out that if you as a reviewer cannot distinguish between the material, the direction, and the performances, you shouldn't be writing reviews—Alex Katz is a great critic because he knows about the theatre, can identify these differences, and eloquently and concretely give a detailed and well supported opinion of a show.

    I saw the show on Thursday, and in my opinion, the performers did the best with what they were given, which was a lukewarm show and vague direction. The blocking was awkward, the choreography sometimes didn't make sense, and there could have been much better sound tech (like why did some people who had a few solo lines here and there have microphones, but characters like Jamie did not?). I believe that it is undeniable that this cast was an extremely talented one, but what this show needed was a bit more energy, "oomph," and drive, which probably is on the director's part. For a show that has no intermission and not much of a linear plot, that would have made it stand on its own a lot more. Zach Vargas Sullivan was anything but mediocre, as he carried that entire show and was probably the most engaging person on stage, although he could have probably been directed better. The girl who played Amanda stood out as the top female performer in the cast, with strong vocals and dynamic range, as well as a magnetic stage presence. The rest of the cast was strong in general, but nothing mind blowing. However, if they were not as strong as they were, the show would have been much weaker because of the directing.

    But specifically, comparing this to the book is a ridiculous way to approach a theatre review. You are reviewing the production, this one that happened. When Ben Brantley or Charles Isherwood review musicals and plays that are adaptations, do they sit there and compare them to the books or films they are inspired by? No. Because they aren't reviewing the script, they are reviewing the production. It's great that you read this book, and sorry that you were scarred by it, but that does not make you an informed reviewer. Just because a high school student read Hamlet doesn't mean he can be a credible source for a review on a Broadway production of Hamlet.

  8. Chris Silverberg  

    guys, please stop shitting on bwog for writing bad reviews. People tend to use the fact that these reviews are bad as a weapon, as though pointing out that the review is poorly written will invalidate everything that was said. Rather than insulting the review, talk about the production. The best way to support the BLBC team is to give them honest, informed feedback, not to point out that a bwog review *isn't* informed feedback. We kinda know that already.

    Anyway, I can't comment on the show 'cause I haven't seen it, but congrats to the cast and crew on all the work they've put in, and don't take the review too seriously (I mean, Sondheim doesn't and Sondheim is basically right about everything.)

  9. Emily Feinstein

    I haven't seen BLBC so I can't comment on the show, but congratulations to the cast and crew on all your hard work. Especially you, Jess Chi. You are a superstar.

    On a related note: Bwog reviewers, in the future it is helpful to know and mention the names of the people who were a huge part of the creative decision making in the show - such as the incredible music director, Andrew Wright (CC '14), the choreographer Olivia Peluso (BC '13) and the director Rae Binstock (CC '15). You also failed to mention the names of any designers, even when complimenting the costumes. This is a huge failing in this review and Bwog reviews in general, and you are pretty much attributing success or failure of the show to the actors - this is a huge discredit to the creative team.

  10. Anonymous

    Bwog needs adult supervision! Bwog, you consistently try to bring down the Columbia community. Try being a positive force at Columbia. Stop the negativity! It is one thing to not like a student performance. It is an entirely different thing to write a review like this!

  11. Jessie C.  

    I, like Emily and Chris, have not gotten a chance to see the show, but congratulations to the whole cast and crew for a difficult job well done. This was definitely a blunt review, and I'm sure that with all the work you did you don't deserve to feel however you're feeling about it.

    I think that the main problem of this review stemmed from the reviewer's classic and unfortunate misconception that the performers are the main creative force in a show, and that they are responsible for everything that they do onstage. As Andrew has already pointed out, the actors are not responsible for the quality of a show's writing--I should know, I was in "Zombie Prom." Additionally, many of the other problems that the reviewer saw with the show, such as the performance's struggle to tell the story and its failure to capture the audience, are problems attributable to the director of a show, not to its performers. It is the director's responsibility not only to coax a great performance out of his/her actors, but also to create a stage and environment by which an audience can be captivated. The performers in BLBC were undoubtedly talented (I cannot believe otherwise having seen them at CUPAL showcase). If the problem is in the show's direction, I would hope that in future a Bwog reviewer would be knowledgeable enough about theatre to say so.

    Which leads me to my next thought: we, the commenters, have problems too. The problem with theatre community members' comments on these Bwog reviews is that we complain about the reviewer's lack of knowledge about creating theatre, which is founded, but then refuse to do anything about the problem. We are the knowledgeable ones, right? I would like to be the first to volunteer to be a member of a group of performers, directors, designers, producers, and smart theatre-goers for the Bwog to draw on when it needs reviews. We all see the shows anyway, so why not put our "expertise" to good use? In the coming weeks and semesters I will gladly volunteer to review my peers' work, and do so with the requisite knowledge of the creative process (and good grammar). The problem can't be fixed if the people who can do the fixing don't step up. Let's stop blaming Bwog, and start making it better.

  12. Anonymous  

    I completely agree about the poor quality of this review - it is a disservice to the hard work that the cast and creative team of BLBC has put in over the past semester. Regardless of what one thinks of the ultimate quality of the production, there's no denying that these people devoted a great deal of their time and energy to giving us an entertaining show.

    With that said, I must say that I'm puzzled by the nonchalance with which people are blaming the material. This show was an incredibly poor choice for Columbia's only musical theater group to perform, and it's very disheartening to see the talent of these people wasted on such dreck. Of course, it is only a select few who get to decide the CMTS shows, but perhaps it is time that we hold them to higher standards and that they start choosing shows that are not miles beneath the capabilities of their performers and their creative teams. Then maybe a fair (or at least fairer) review might come along. I'm not sure if there are issues with rights or something else is at hand, but to have people of this quality at a school of this quality perform this piece of shit (I honestly don't even understand how this musical exists) is quite bewildering and somewhat embarrassing, especially when there is an incredible number of great shows out there that would provide wonderful opportunities for people to showcase the true extent of their abilities.

    Everybody is correct about one thing - the material was very limiting. At the least, what should be taken away from this production is that CMTS should start taking its role as a Musical Theatre Society seriously. This isn't meant to blame anyone, but after some truly appalling choices of shows in recent semesters, there really needs to be a change before we all see "CMTS Presents: High School Musical 3."

    • CMTS Board Member  

      Unfortunately getting the rights to shows is not as easy as people think. Not only do we have to go through the board, administration and publishing companies but we also have to get the approval from the playwright or his/her representatives. Every Sondheim musical we do is approved by Steven Sondheim's representatives which means it's hard to come by. There are also laws that restrict theatre companies, educational and professional, from doing certain shows because of geography. For example, if an off broadway theatre in Manhattan or New Jersey is doing Company, we will most likely not get the rights. This year has been an incredible year for broadway musicals, meaning a hard year for us. There have been ubiquitous revivals of shows such as GODSPELL, FOLLIES and SPELLING BEE, etc. all over New York meaning we as a student group can't do them. However we are taking all of your comments and suggestions into account (being mindful of what is and is not constructive) and we hope that a review doesn't dictate in any way what CMTS as an organization does or can do. Theatre is made to be discussed and while this forum is not necessarily the most constructive way of doing so it can also provoke some of you to come see more of our work. Regardless of one not so positive review, or some comments, we love theatre and we will keep doing it. We cannot wait to choose our season next year and are excited to get more input.

  13. Anonymous  

    FYI: Getting rights for the best and most classic musicals are difficult to get since our school is in NYC. If we were in Buford, Wyoming, columbia would be able to get the rights for any show

  14. Anonymous  

    HOLY SHIT COLUMBIA THEATRE COMMUNITY, THESE ARE NOT THE SENTIMENTS OF CAMPUS, THESE ARE YOUR PERSONAL OPINIONS OF YOUR OWN WORK. DO YOU KNOW HOW UNPROFESSIONAL IT IS IN THE THEATRE WORLD TO CRITICIZE A CRITIQUE OF YOUR OWN WORK? IF DAVID MAMET GETS A BAD REVIEW, DO YOU THINK HE IS GOING TO BE LIKE "THAT'S NO FAIR!". ARE YOU A CHILD? EVERYONE THINKS YOU ARE ARROGANT AND ABRASIVE. INSTEAD OF BEING STEREOTYPICAL THEATRE SNOBS, WHY DON'T YOU JUST STOP TAKING YOURSELF SO SERIOUSLY AND JUST CREATE ART. WHO CARES WHAT THEY SAY. IT'S SO SAD, THIS JUST SHOWS ALL YOU CARE ABOUT IS THE SUPERFICIAL EXPERIENCE OF HAVING PEOPLE THINK YOU'RE AWESOME INSTEAD OF LOVE OF THE CRAFT.

    • Relax

      Mamet doesn't complain because they are critiquing his work. Like the people said the reviewer reviewed a show (which just sucked) not the performance. If the reviewer said something about the performance and hated it, then there wouldn't be the issues that everyone has. CMTS is working with material they were given. They can't change it. And whoever commented on rights issues in NYC is correct. So what they wanted was a review of the performance, good or bad. They're not criticizing a critique of their own work because there just wasn't one.

  15. Anonymous

    It was my understanding that CMTS attempted to get the rights to a bunch of other shows and this was the very last one on their list and the ONLY one that the company gave them the rights to. That being said, you can't blame CMTS for the fact that the company would only give them rights to a really shitty show.

    • cmts board member  

      this is correct.

      • Anonymous  

        Just a question: How can CMTS give lists of previous seasons which included Company, Kiss Me Kate, and Into the Woods in their program, yet say that it is too difficult to get rights to good shows in NYC? There are a lot of good shows out there, and they've performed a lot of good shows in the past. Seeing that many of the people who participated in these shows graduated years ago, is it possible to start repeating some of them?

        • Anonymous  

          I feel the same way - did something change within the last year, then? CMTS has in the past been able to get the rights to shows like Company, Fiddler, Pippin, Cinderella, etc.... but are the rights companies being stricter now?

          I know that NYU has been able to perform The Most Happy Fella, Sweeney Todd, and even a little-known gem like Promenade (a show like that would be an inspired choice for CMTS) in recent semesters, so maybe they know something we don't...

          • Chris again  

            lol. Guys, you're entirely right. Nothing's changed from previous years in which we've done better shows. There was a combination of circumstances that led us to choose BLBC (including not getting the rights for some shows we would've preferred), but I think the takeaway from it is that we need to change how we handle getting rights to shows to prevent a situation wherein the only show that truly fits the creative team's vision is a show that just isn't that good. The good news is, we've learned our lesson, and we are changing how we apply for rights, so that we can provide the community and our creative and design teams (and our actors!) with better material.

  16. No offense

    But don't invite a reviewer if you can't take a shitty review. There are limits to how mean Bwog can be, and I got to be honest, this is well within them. All of the grammar nazi theatre butthurt in the world can't cure a mediocre college musical. Unfortunately, most musicals here fall in that category, seems like this review got something right. A few comma splices and sentence fragments doesn't change that.

  17. Anonymous

    My favorite part was opening night when someone had their mic on backstage and sneezed.

  18. actually  

    i don't think alex katz is a very good reviewer. his reviews are lukewarm and bland. alex taylor's reviews are written more proficiently. and if you want to look at a critical review that isn't malicious read the review of fucking a. i was part of that show and i still wasn't offended by it.

    having that said, i agree with what's been said above. bwog isn't here to kiss the ass of the columbia theater community and further inflate massive egos. if you're gonna believe reviews, you have to believe both the good and the bad. don't invite a bwogger if you can't take criticism.

  19. Anonymous  

    i think this also has to do with the leadership in cmts. i heard that the board didnt even know which show was picked until after winter break when auditions were publicized. that kind of lack of communication is frightening. whoever runs that club now needs to step up their game and listen to their board, because knowing some of those people on there, i know that they would never have let this show happen if they had a say.

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