So right off the bat, if you’re going to world-premier a musical about Neil Diamond, using Neil Diamond’s songs, Boston is absolutely the place to do it. Before the doors even opened the entire theater was buzzing, truly excited for what they knew was coming.
And now my disclaimer for every time I end up seeing a jukebox musical: I hate them in theory. I do. I much prefer original music to building a story around songs that already exist, but, dammit, this is Neil Diamond. And if you know me even a little bit it’s a good bet you know I wouldn’t miss going to see a musical about Neil Diamond for anything.
Even still, I went in skeptical. In 2005 I was fortunate enough to see Neil at the Boston Garden. It was genuinely an unparalleled experience. Picture couples in their 50s and 60s making out in the aisles. Grandmothers standing on their seats swaying to Holly Holy. It remains one of less than a handful of concerts I’ve been to where we didn’t sit for one damn song. Three freaking hours of 30K+ people losing their bloody minds. It was FANTASTIC. So the idea of watching some other dudes pretend to be Neil Diamond when I could just flip on my iPod and close my eyes enjoying the real thing wasn’t compelling me to fork out the dough and show up at the Emerson Colonial.
But, again, it’s Neil Diamond. At the very least I knew I’d enjoy the music. And again, it’s Boston. We’re gonna hear Sweet Caroline and the place is going to lose its collective shit. True, the Colonial only sits 1700 so it wouldn’t be a replay of my night with Neil and thirty thousand of our closest friends, but it would be memorable just the same. So off I went.
Getting right to the meat of the thing…Will Swenson. For the entire first act I kept thinking that even though he didn’t sound that much like him, he was doing a great job. You are compelled to watch him when he’s on stage. And then there’s the second act. Holy shit, Will, where the hell did that come from? Literally from the moment the curtain rises on Act II until the moment the show ends, it’s like Neil Diamond is right on that damn stage. Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show will be the performance they use on the Tonys next year. Mark my words. And a special mention for You Don’t Bring Me Flowers. In real life, it doesn’t even make my top ten favorite Neil Diamond songs, but in this show, Robyn Hurder’s heartbreaking vocals and Will’s spot-on impression of Neil Diamond make it one of the best performances in the entire show.
But let’s talk about the actors who aren’t Will Swenson. This cast is stacked all around. As she does with every show she’s in, Robyn Hurder commands your attention. And they didn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel for anyone else either. This cast is Broadway-class, no question about it. Ultimately, though, as amazing as the leads are, the ensemble, as ever, carries this show.
|Every one of them deserves to have their name seen
They are astounding, the entire lot of them. And it was so invigorating to see performers of all shapes and sizes up there bringing the house down. I have no idea what the plan is for the Broadway transfer but I assume/hope everyone on stage tonight is making the trip down to New York when the Boston run is over.
I’m trying not to give too much away here so my apologies for my vagueness.
This isn’t a stereotypical biographical story. The songs aren’t presented in chronological order (and are listed in the Playbill alphabetically, not in the order in which they appear in the show) and we don’t get a huge amount of background or even a ton of exposition. Somehow, though, it works (and if I’m being honest, the unique way in which it’s presented is probably one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much).
The show is framed in such a way that we get Neil – Then (Swenson) and Neil – Now (the insanely understated but still fantastic Mark Jacoby) on stage at the same time. And without giving away spoilers, their duet (of sorts) had me sobbing. With one song, ONE, Jacoby steals the stage from Swenson and it is electrifying (and a tremendous punch in the heart).
I have one quibble and it’s so minor I only bring it up for posterity (so I can remember it!). Hurder gets a solo on Forever in Blue Jeans. (And she kills…I mean KILLS. I was actually a little surprised she didn’t get a standing ovation for it, that’s how immense the applause was.) So it isn’t that I didn’t love her rendition, I did/do. But that song, holy cow in the original version Neil Diamond’s voice is sex on vinyl. I really, really wanted to hear what Swenson could do with it. But, for how they used it in the show, Hurder being the one to bring it home was, I have to admit, perfect.
It was a truly entertaining night at the theater and I’m so glad I was able to see it before it reaches New York. At the very least I can pretty much guarantee you’ll leave the theater in a better mood than when you arrived.