Some songs of summer endure beyond their appointed seasons (such as Drake’s “One Dance”), while others are tired before the leaves fall (Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling”). The play “The Song of Summer” falls somewhere in between.
Instead of being about those tunes that compete for hot weather earworm status, Lauren Yee’s “The Song of Summer” asks if there might be more important concerns than what’s hot and catchy. Robbie (Dustin Bronson) bailed on his Pennsylvania hometown and snagged a fictitious song of summer in the vein of an actual one, “Blurred Lines.” (“Girl, I wanna empower you to make a bad decision,” Robbie sings as the show opens.) But after a meltdown on tour, he heads home to, somewhat improbably, check in with high school piano teacher Mrs. C (Maggie Pistner).
Director Addie Gorlin’s frisky production shifts fluidly between Robbie’s meetings with his manager at a Waffle House and his “me time” in Mrs. C’s cluttered living room. (An-Lin Dauber’s set looks suitably drab but a simple effect, involving table lamps, beautifully transforms it.)
Bronson is effective as a Bieberesque pop star, a slight waver in his vocals hinting that Robbie might be more comfortable onstage if he weren’t the frontman. Pistner’s matter-of-fact Mrs. C is delightful and Elyse Ahmad does fine work as Mrs. C’s daughter, Tina, particularly when an adult Tina illustrates the divide between what we hope our lives will be as teenagers and what they actually turn out to be.
The play shifts between roughly the present, although it’s supposed to be a year in which there are Summer Olympics, and 12 years earlier, when Robbie and Tina were in high school.
Seems like there’s a lot going on, no? Like Yee’s “The Great Leap,” which was staged at the Guthrie Theater last winter, “The Song of Summer” is a play built on material that should have followed Coco Chanel’s advice about taking off one accessory before leaving the house. As cluttered as Mrs. C’s living room, “Summer” packs in: consent issues that are barely addressed, artistic ownership, why hometowns beckon those who leave too swiftly, cultural/gender appropriation and even the morality of watching tiny gymnasts force their bodies to do impossible things. All in 90 minutes. With songs.
Yee can’t be faulted for ambition, but as a result of having to set up all of that, it takes too long for the stakes of “The Song of Summer” to kick in, and then things conclude abruptly. This may be because I saw it shortly after learning of the death of Bernard Slade, another playwright with a fondness for contrivance and rom-coms, but it seemed to me that the strongest element of “The Song of Summer” was its central romance, the details of which I won’t spoil.
However, I will say that, in comparison to the rest of the play, they seem more mature and thoughtful, much like the season we’re currently in.
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