‘Songs About Stuff’ at Flint Rep hits Pleasant Gen X music
FLINT, Mich.–Generation X is somewhat of a lost generation—dwarfed in numbers by the generations on either side of it–its voice always too quiet to make a political difference, and barely a contribution to society to its name. Except for pop music and 80s culture.
And in Michigan, that contribution includes one Wally Pleasant, an acoustic singer who defies most conventional genres, though he sometimes sports the label of post-punk folk singer or a college rock performer. Starting out as an open mic performer while attending Michigan State University as a political science student in the late 80s, Pleasant went on to local fame, producing several records and winning an Emmy for his Biggby Coffee commercial.
Now, Flint Repertory Theater Artistic Director Michael Lluberes has created a musical featuring Wally Pleasant songs, with the title taken from the album of one of his early works, “Songs about Stuff: The Music of Wally Pleasant.”
In many ways, the whole show is a love letter to Gen X’ers–those who were in high school and college in the 80s and 90s, though those of any age are going to be tickled by Pleasant’s quirky humor and enthusiasm with which the four singers perform his works. And you don’t have to be familiar with Pleasant’s songs before attending. Nor do you have to have played Pac Man or owned cassette tapes, though it helps.
Lluberes does an excellent job of doling out songs originally sung by Pleasant to his ensemble of two men and two women: Joshua Cornea, Amana Kuo, Mary Paige Rieffel and Gage Webster. Brian Buckner arranged the music to not only work as solos, duets, and ensemble pieces, but also to be played by the pit orchestra of him on keyboard, David Boze on guitar and Russ Sauter on percussion.
It opens with a scene-setting song, “Restless College Years,” before launching into such humorous tales as “Pscyho Roommate” and “Bad Haircut.” While there is no over-arching storyline to this jukebox musical, each song tells its own story and the ensemble commits to them with gusto and unadulterated fun.
Webster is the closest to portraying Pleasant himself, singing songs like “I Wanna Be a Pop Star” that pokes fun at those who achieve such status; “Stupid Day Job” bemoaning the mindlessness of entry-level 9-to-5 jobs; “Two for One Coupon” courting a young woman with his overly thrifty ways; and “Denny’s at Four A.M.”
Webster has a freshness about him that brings humor to each song he performs as well as a sweetness when he sings about his first love or invites his date to a game of Risk. His clear vocals contribute to the storytelling in a way that is always charming.
Kuo gets to sing some of the most off-the-wall songs that border on goth—or, more accurately, a satirical take on goth girls. She opens with “Psycho Roommate” and then gets to sing such fun/creepy songs as “The Day Ted Nugent Killed All the Animals” and “Alternateen.”
She brings a wacky intensity to each song, making some of Pleasant’s most creatively bizarre lyrics sound convincing, or at least like she believes them.
If Webster is the all-American boy, Cornea gets to be the odd man out whether he is being creepy, rejected, a small-time drug dealer, the unfortunate victim of evolution, or just a man with a bad haircut. He sings all the parts of the guys who pull the short stick of life and he does an adorable job of portraying a wide range of losers and winning audience sympathy for every one.
Webster puts character into each role and sings expressively and comically.
Pleasant doesn’t’ really have songs about “normal” girls, but Rieffel gets to play the ones that are slightly less psychotic than Kuo’s. Slightly.
Rieffel does a wonderful job of going from the college girlfriend to self-righteous hippie to devoted rock and roll fan who gets visited in her apartment by all the dead stars. Each character has her own story and she easily handles both bright and dark, joyful and angry.
While each have their solo numbers, all of them combine in duets, trios and quartets. It’s clear in each number that they are having fun. They convey the chemistry of college buddies who live and breathe the same air, share the same challenges and have formed life-long bonds. The best moments of the night come when all four are on stage interacting and singing together, celebrating life in all its unusual and often mundane ways.
No one is credited with choreography in the program, but it was brightly naturalistic. They didn’t break out in tap dances or ballet moves, but they danced the way college students and young adults would, staying in constant motion, dancing through the songs in a way that told each story.
The experience of this musical is meant to be a Michigan experience, one that started in the lobby as guests were treated to popcorn and such Michigan beverages as Faygo and Vernors, which they were invited to take into the Elgood Theatre with them as they watched the show. Part of the stage was given over to cabaret style tables and chairs, evoking the feeling of an open mic night at a mid-Michigan bar.
Shane Cinal’s scenic design was simple, effective, and following the Michigan theme. The only set pieces were stools and a vinyl-covered booth bench that was rolled around the stage as needed. Behind the orchestra was a large Michigan map made with strings of lights that also represented the major highways, cherries for Traverse City, a heart for East Lansing, and waves of blue for the Great Lakes.
Chelsie McPhilimy did an over-the-top job with lights, giving it a rock concert flavor with flashing lights, colors, and background marquees.
“Songs about Stuff: The Music of Wally Pleasant” won’t change your life, but it will remind you of all that is quirky, fun and good about the world. It suggests that even the most annoying of life’s travails can be made a little more bearable when someone as clever as Wally Pleasant twists them into comic lyrics that keep you from taking anything too seriously.