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