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Theater Review: 'American Pie'

“American Pie” serves up nostalgia and fun at Florida Studio Theatre.

Sarah Hund, Ben Mackel, Joey Barreiro, and Joe Casey in American Pie. Photo by Carla Varisco.
Sarah Hund, Ben Mackel, Joey Barreiro, and Joe Casey in American Pie. Photo by Carla Varisco.
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Back when rock was young, they were already saying, “Rock is dead.” (Lots of people. Seriously.) That’s the whole point of Don McLean’s “American Pie” — a wildly popular rock song that was also rock criticism, go figure. Not coincidentally, “American Pie” is also the title of the current revue at FST’s Goldstein Cabaret. Based on its talented performers, rumors of rock’s death are greatly exaggerated — at least a sweet, harmonic subset of it.

The performers in question are Joey Barreiro, Tony Bruno, Joe Casey, Sarah Hund and Ben Mackel. The revue is the brainchild of Rebecca and Richard Hopkins. Director Russell Treyz and Musical Director Ben Krauss put the pedal to the metal and bring it to life. As the title implies, it’s a slice of a ’60s song served hot.

The revue begins with a tight rendition of the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA.” (Lyrics by Brian Wilson. Tune ripped off from Chuck Berry.) The talk before the tune gives a wise nod to the song’s doo-wop roots. That a cappella genre thrived on tight vocal harmonies, clever lyrics and a simple rhythm line wrapped in polyphonic complexity. Add instruments? Surf music is basically what you get. Nice insight. But there’s a bigger picture.

Voice, plus polyphony, plus storytelling. It’s a branch on the tree of rock (as seen in Jack Black’s “School of Rock”). Doo-wop, surf music and folk rock are merely twigs on that branch. And what tender twigs they are … touchy-feely, tender sensitive twigs. And that’s cool.

Rock isn’t all in-your-face aggression. As much as I love the Ramones and MC5, they’re not the whole show. Emotional connection shares billing with alienation; voices singing sweetly together can also rock. It’s what doo-wop, surf music, folk rock and the ballads of bleeding-heart singer-songwriters have in common. The human voice as a musical instrument, basically.

And vocal harmony holds this show together. It’s the bed that such odd musical bedfellows as the Byrds, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Lovin’ Spoonful, Billy Joel, Paul Simon and/or Garfunkel, Carole King, the Doobie Brothers and Neil Diamond lie in. Their sweet (or angry) voices got airplay in a time when that mattered.

This revue does justice to these voices of the 1960s and ’70s. The songs include Paul Simon’s “The Fighter” and “Cecelia,” Graham Nash’s “Teach Your Children Well,” Ray Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” and more tunes than I can list. They’re all good — though some are trimmed to the bone. My advice? Reduce the song list and play each song in full. If “American Pie” is the title, I want the whole pie. Quality, not quantity, is what counts, right? At least to my ears.

I don’t listen to Beethoven or Stravinsky out of nostalgia. I listen because their music is good. The same applies to songs by Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, Simon and the rest. Who cares what year they wrote their tunes? It’s good stuff. Period.

But maybe that’s just me. I can’t help but notice the rest of the baby boomer audience happily feasting on slice after slice of nostalgic pie. (Their joy of recognition while singing along on the choruses would be the tip-off.) It’s the soundtrack of their misspent youth, thus they dig it. Fine by me. There’s no wrong reason to listen to the good stuff, especially when such a good band is playing it.