Mixed Blood Theatre’s season kickoff, The Song of Summer (November 1-24) is much lighter than one might expect from a company that tackled Roe vs. Wade, racial identity and the election, and the impending environmental and technological doom of the country only one season ago. Indeed, The Song of Summer’s is similar to a Hallmark movie in style and theme: Love can lay a new path. Its conflict, as nitty gritty as it gets, is against the money-grubbing recording industry and our hero’s own lack of direction.
It’s present day in playwright Lauren Yee’s script, and the song of the summer is a “Blurred Lines”-esque hit by amiable if befuddled Robbie (Dustin Bronson). Despite his overnight fame, Robbie doesn’t have many goals for his future, nor does he have any real defining personality. That’s why his big-shot—or at least, acts-like-a-big-shot—manager Joe (Gavin Lawrence) loves him. However, there’s a secret to the song’s origin, and eventually Robbie returns to his small hometown to remember who he was before the voice filter, the hip-thrusting dance moves, and the douchebag fashion (perfect choices by costume and scenic designer An-Lin Dauber).
The Song of Summer starts with the earworm itself at a club-level volume. While Bronson clearly has a good voice, it’s much more suited to the acoustic guitar he picks up when we step back in time. In a way, this helps show just how inauthentic his onstage persona is. (Or at least that’s one way to look at it.) Regardless, the lyrics are pure gold, and I wish every performance had the captions above the screen like the November 3 matinee did.
The other songs between Bronson and actor Elyse Ahmad, who plays his old friend Tina, are the play’s most charming moments. Due to director Addie Gorlin’s attention to fidgety body language, Bronson and Ahmad are painfully awkward when they portray their characters’ teenage years. Really, I can only hope I was less cringey when I was that age. However, when the songs kick in, the ridiculousness takes on a tinge of awkward, precious sincerity, and the delivery and lyrics are worthy of any romantic comedy.
As the story progresses, it weaves together a somewhat predictable plot line. Tina’s opening scenes add an air of artsiness, though, and a running joke about the local waffle house sparks nostalgic, warm chuckles. It’s these and other little touches that help the play stay away from becoming too mechanical. In the end, Robbie’s piano teacher is perhaps the most refreshing role that Yee has created, and actor Maggie Pistner does well expanding her matronly, busy-body introduction into a full character of mettle and compassion.
This is the second play of Yee’s that has come to the Twin Cities this year—the first was the Guthrie’s production of The Great Leap—and she has two more coming. In April at Ten Thousand Things, The Hatmaker’s Wife ups the whimsy, and at the Jungle in May, Cambodian Rock Band will crank up the stereo volume with the help of Theater Mu. So come to Mixed Blood to further your informal survey of one of the hottest playwrights in the Twin Cities, or simply come for a fun 90 minutes. The Song of Summer isn’t a runaway hit, but it works hard to hammer home the choices and twists that come with falling in love.