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A group of men sitting in chairs in front of a sound board

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Eli Gelb, Andrew R. Butler (Photo: Chelcie Parry)




Reviewed by Julia Polinsky



David Adjani's Stereophonic, now at Playwrights Horizons, tells the story of the members of a rock band spending a year or so in recording studios, making songs for an album that will clearly shoot them to superstardom. As they overthink and argue about each aspect of their music, from tempos that sound wrong to vocals that come out just right, adjusting levels in tiny increments or tuning snare drums to the point of screaming, their relationships come apart as their musical career comes together.


The unnamed band itself, the sound, the personnel, the look, their career situation, and the rocky relationships among them, are clearly an homage to Fleetwood Mac. Two unhappy couples make this music: the British bass player Reg (Will Brill) and his estranged wife, vocalist/keyboardist Holly (Juliana Canfield); the American couple, the bullying perfectionist singer/guitarist Peter (Tom Pecinka) and his long-time girlfriend, lead vocalist and songwriter Diana (Sarah Pidgeon). Rounding out the relationship misery is Simon, the drummer, a husband and father far away from his family and feeling destruction looming.

A group of people sitting in front of a sound board

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Andrew R. Butler, Sarah Pidgeon, Chris Stack, Juliana Canfield (Photo: Chelcie Parry)


If you have memories of this time period - 1976/77 -- and loved the pop music of the day, Stereophonic will push your buttons in a good way. Many an audience head bobbed and toes tapped along with Will Butler's marvelous songs, so smashingly arranged by music director Justin Craig. If you were lucky enough to have spent time in recording studios back then, this love song to the ups and downs of a 1970s rock band on the rise will send you on a Proustian visit to a kinder, gentler, stoned-er rock-and-roll era.


Butler's original songs perfectly track through from draft to almost-there to killer tunes that will obviously be number one hits. The actors play the instruments, sing the songs, make music like a good, tight band, improving over the year of nominal studio time, compressed into the 3 hours of the play.


Enver Chakartash's costumes handily evoke time and place, chunky heels, bandanas, psychedelic patterns and all, as do Tommy Kurzman's splendid wig and hair design. David Zinn's bi-level set - recording equipment in the front studio, sound stage raised and walled off in the back, visible through huge windows -- is as much a character of the play as any of the people and evokes the dual nature of everything happening on stage.


A group of people with headphones

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Sarah Pidgeon, Juliana Canfield, Tom Pecinka (Photo: Chelcie Parry)


In Stereophonic, we watch people cooperate at making art, no matter the cost to themselves. The show also sings a love song to the behind the scenes people. They are the writers, the engineers, the creatives who never show up in front of an audience but contribute much to the work of art.


Grover (Eli Gelb), the engineer who has lied about his work to get the job, sticks out the fractious studio atmosphere all the way through to the breakout hit -- and the possible breakup -- just waiting to get his Grammy and move on. You root for him to get it. Things fall apart, and yet the center holds; the band can thank Grover for being the glue. Without him, nothing is recorded, not a note captured, not a sound heard. He is as much an artist as any of the band members, and it's fitting that he finds himself fully alive in the studio, from beginning to end. In some ways, Stereophonic is really about him; he's the uber-creative who makes the other artists' work into magic, and he makes the journey from talented wannabe to recording hero.


The three hours of Stereophonic don't exactly pass in a flash; there are some scenes that could easily have been cut, as they don't really move things along, but they're just so well written, it's easy to understand why they were left in. The stoner scene, for one? Brilliantly written, brilliantly funny, brilliantly acted, totally enjoyable, but not much use moving the play forward.

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Will Brill,Chris Stack (Photo: Chelcie Parry)


Adjmi has an ear for natural dialogue and the cadence of overlapping emotion as well as speech. He uses it well, letting the dual spaces of the set and the convenient microphones do the work. You feel like you're eavesdropping on real people. People who make music. People who make art. Enjoy their Stereophonic world.



At Playwrights Horizons

416 W. 42nd St.

Tickets: $61-$123