Review: SF Playhouse’s ‘The Song of Summer’ hits notes, misses others

Robbie (Jeremy Kahn) and Tina (Monica Ho) make music together in the San Francisco Playhouse production of “The Song of Summer,” running through Aug. 14 live and on-demand. (Cover photo) Reggie D. White, center, focuses on getting Robbie back on his concert tour. (Jessica Palopoli photos)

Pop music gets a bad rap.

There’s delight in lyrics that are so basic, so anodyne, with pinpoint precise choreography, sharp duds and plenty of head-bopping. No groundbreaking intended, and none accidentally achieved.

Robbie is a reluctant star. He’s got the slap that all the kids are jammin’ to, but he’s hardly one who lights up a room with his charisma. Instead of watching himself on television, he watches the Olympics. And instead of working on his next summer’s hit, he’d rather wax poetic on the piano of his former teacher in her rustic living room, trading crowd shrieks for C-sharp major solitude.

Lauren Yee’s “The Song of Summer,” running at San Francisco Playhouse, has plenty going for it. It features four solid performances with delectable ranges of emotion, each turn balancing the other nicely. Yet the play does not always move through space with an engaging fluidity, at times crawling towards a denouement that doesn’t quite compel.

Robbie (Jeremy Kahn) is stuck in a reality that seems to accentuate his reluctance about what it means to be a pop star. A pair of shiny slacks and a jacket that screams “not me” carves him out as a walking contradiction. He has the hit of the summer, but that also comes with some challenges. While there’s some pushback because the song is “rape-y,” it also might have roots in Christian rock. Robbie is facing a bit of a moral dilemma, but his Machiavellian manager Joe (Reggie D. White) ain’t gonna let anything get in the way of the cash locomotive careening madly towards the stars.

Robbie finds comfort in playing music in the living room of Mrs. C. (Anne Darragh) while escaping his concert tour. (Jessica Palopoli photo)

While there are aspects of the script that are problematic, the heartbeat of the production comes from two performances – the role of Mrs. C., played with glee and sincerity by Anne Darragh, and her staccato-like daughter Tina, tackled with a boundless energy by Monica Ho.

While it is the comfort of Mrs. C. that gives Robbie peace from the crowds, he views Tina as a portrait one may view in a museum – never for one second does he think that he can take it home with him. After all, in his own words, while she is living life as a “seven,” Robbie is stuck as a “four.” That ranking might be completely acceptable for Tina, but Robbie can’t fathom them ever being together, except for the one night they are very, very together.

While Kahn has lots of delightful moments, the script doesn’t give him a ton to do other than play one note throughout, which almost feels like he is more device and less three-dimensional character. White’s turn as a manager, one with lots of heart and a nice dash of despicable is quite fun, especially his moments discovering the magic of legendary Waffle House potatoes.

Ho performed many wonderful moments, especially considering she was responsible for carrying the bulk of transitional responsibility. It is her moments of discovery that make the piece go away from the formulaic approach of romantic comedy and further into an examination of searing humanity over the course of time. While the play’s conclusion and big reveal don’t feel wholly organic, Ho lends humanity and credence to the bulk of the play’s 100 minutes.

“The Song of Summer” has strengths and glaring weaknesses, but what cannot be ignored is how fabulous it felt to be inside a performance space taking in a story. Sets on wagons, stage managers moving in blue light and an adorable sticker that declares the return of the “Empathy Gym” felt as if a large victory was achieved.

Let’s hope that theatres, much like Robbie’s number one hit, are ready to make a bunch of their own chart toppers.

WHAT TO KNOW

San Francisco Playhouse presents “The Song of Summer”
Written by Lauren Yee
Directed by Bill English
The Word: A production that crawls a bit more than it compels, four solid ensemble performances and a return to live theatre is wonderful balm.
Through Aug. 14
Running time: 100 minutes
Tickets range from $30 – $100 for in-person viewing, $15 – $100 for on-demand viewing
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post St. San Francisco
For tickets and information, call (415) 677-9596, or visit www.sfplayhouse.org

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