New York City Theater
"It Shoulda Been You"
Brooks Atkinson Theater
You gotta give in. “It Shoulda Been You” is not as hilarious as “The Book of Mormon.” It’s not even as colorful as “Are You With It?” (Does anyone remember “Are You With It?”) But it’s an amusing trifle.
As written by Brian Hargrove (book and lyrics) and Barbara Anselmi (music and concept), the songs aren’t memorable, the Borscht Belt jokes have whiskers and the characters are clichéd (overbearing mothers, henpecked husbands, insecure children, warm touchy/feely Jews vs. cold distant/inebriated Christians). But, hold on: it’s funny and, thanks to an excellent cast, it’s delivered with an offhand shrug and high spirits. (Does anyone remember “High Spirits”?)
It’s also surprisingly, sometimes delightfully up-to-date. Taking place at the George Hotel, probably somewhere in NYC, it’s ostensibly the story of the wedding between Rebecca Steinberg and Brian Howard with such an occasion’s usual tsuris. Reversing the sexes in “Abie’s Irish Rose” (does anyone remember “Abie’s Irish Rose”?), the bride is Jewish, the groom is a WASP “so white bread he sweats mayonnaise.”
Naturally, both have parents who alternately kvell and kvetch. There’s also the bride’s sister Jenny, a plus-sized woman with a heart of gold and an acceptance of spinsterhood. Throw in the bride’s supposed former boyfriend, who shows up uninvited, a co-maid of honor for her, a best man for the groom, two seen-it-all waiters, an effete wedding planner and a couple of comic relatives.
The first number will give you an idea: “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, something blue-ish, well, it’s true-ish, when you‘re Jewish,” sung by Jenny.
As speedily directed by David Hyde Pierce, doors slam, people run, sarcasm drips and the cast has a great time playing it all for realism, which garners more laughs than if played it for laughs. Example: “Stand up straight. No one’s going to want to dance with a question mark.”
Vaguely amusing? More than that as said by the sardonic Tyne Daly as one of those Jewish mothers never at a loss for a complaint. (“Mom, it worries me when you stop talking,” says one of her daughters.) Then there’s her co-star, the effervescent Harriet Harris as the groom’s mom who gets the biggest laugh of the evening with one word: “Yes!” Daly and Harris know they’re playing stereotypes but listen to Daly’s song, “Nice” and Harris’ “Where Did I Go Wrong?” to find the definition of “star.”
For all their expertise, however, this is Jenny’s show and Lisa Howard makes her touching and wise, funny and radiant. Too bad she wasn’t nominated for a Tony. She deserved it.
“It Shoulda Been You” is no masterpiece, but who wants a masterpiece every time out? Nor is it chopped liver – more like a warm bath in May. (Does anyone remember “Very Warm for May”?)
--David A. Rosenberg
April 29, 2015