U-M’s “One Hit Wonder” delivers with an energetic pop tart


One Hit Wonder

One Hit Wonder's charm isn't from its tried-and-true plot; it's from the cast's energetically delivered pop songs that everybody knows. Photo courtesy U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

As Paul Simon once noted, “It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.” Sadly, many of them do not have as long and productive a career as Paul Simon. Many of them are “one hit wonders” but their single contribution to the charts linger on.

The University of Michigan Musical Theatre Department is presenting the world premiere of One Hit Wonder, an energetic musical that gives the university students a chance to workshop an original musical that is tailor-made for a young cast and audience on one hand and for a nostalgic older audience with a taste for 1980s-style pop music .

The play is a collaboration between The Araca Group and the Department of Musical Theatre. Araca is a leading Broadway production and brand management company that has produced such notable Broadway hits as Wicked, Urinetown, A View From the Bridge, and A Raisin in the Sun.

One Hit Wonder is not the most original musical or the most politically relevant. It is yet another boy loves girl, boy loses girl and you know. Once the characters are introduced you can figure out where the story’s going. But as Casey Kasem used to say, “The hits just keep on comin’” with a string of one-hit wonders. The book and additional lyrics are by Jeremy Desmon with additional music by Jeff Thomson. Most of the lyrics and music will be instantly recognizable though the names of the groups or solo performers may be a bit fuzzy. The show cleverly incorporates everything from A-ha’s “Take on Me” to Fontana Bass’ “Rescue Me” to the evergreen Hot Chocolates’ “You Sexy Thing.”

Director Hunter Foster and his outstanding cast rip through this pop tart with energy to spare. They make the music their own and they also display a firm command of comedy, verbal and physical.

Once upon a time, Rick, Gunner, and Ashley were a pop group called All About the Girl. In their teens, they won a song contest with an original tune called “One Hit Wonder.” They hoped that song would lead to success. It never happened. Rick and Gunner soldiered on for 15 years in bars and as side acts at local fairs. Ashley moved on to become an accomplished accountant.

Then along came YouTube. An old video showed up and a fan passed it along to a friend and one like after another took the song super viral and created new pop stars.

Would Ashley take a chance and join ex-boyfriend Rick and bass player Gunner to take another shot at stardom. Will she agree to join a tour as opening act for the current pop phenom. Of course she will.

Noah Kieserman plays Rick as an intense pop performer and a romantic dreamer who can’t shake the ideas that happiness is just a hit away. Kieserman, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Justin Trudeau, delivers on the music and heart.

Ashley, the girl it’s all about, is played with warmth and intelligence by Leanne Antonio. She has a radiant smile, an excellent voice and the talent to handle a range of emotions convincingly.

The bass player, Gunner, is played by Elliot Styles. Gunner is a rocker trapped in a pop music world, where rock stars have been forgotten in favor of ditsy divas and a rumbling bass is not welcomed. Styles is engaging and funny as a bass playing sidekick to Rick’s would-be Daryl Hall. He also makes a declaration for more honesty in music.

Desmon saves his richest satire for Mercy Faith, one of those Tiffany-Brittany divas who seem to last as pop stars as others fail to make the grade. Grace Bydalek has a field day playing the pop star gone mad. Bydalek gives Mercy a chalk on blackboard squeal combined with a mincing twitter that perfectly captures the mindless star. She has an entourage that mimics her mile-a-minute vocal style. Bydalek has some fine physical comic moments as she offers herself up as a goddess of the pop world while she pleads “Rescue Me.”

As the play opens, Ashley has been made partner in her accounting firm and has a nerdy accountant boyfriend. But the boyfriend isn’t as uptight as he seems. Simon Longnight is hilarious as the numbers guy who emerges as a hipster with a style all his own. His dance moves are both comic and dazzling. He is funny, charming and not so far out of his element as it at first appears.

Nkeki Obi-Melekwe brings a crisp English accent to the no-nonsense role of Mercy’s harassed manager. She and Longnight make an engaging couple and do a fine duet on “Take on Me”/”I Melt With You.”

Foster has kept it simple with a back-stage design by Adam Koch that stays the same, allowing the show to move quickly as a pop music story should. The one-on-one moments are handled with humor and delicacy. The choreography by Jennifer Jancuska takes its cue from raves and mosh pits keeping the ensemble jumping and hopping throughout.

The band under the direction of Martijn Appelo is in fine form on the old songs, which are all handled a bit differently than we remember them in keeping with their use in the show.

One Hit Wonder may never make it to Broadway, though this production might seal the deal. But the show has a rich potential to stay alive as regional and school production. It has fun with teenage obsessions with pop music and begins with the aspirations of the young to be more than a passing fad or an unrepeatable success.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

"One Hit Wonder" continues at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on the main campus of the University of Michigan at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19, 8 p.m. Oct. 13, 14, 20 and 21 and 2 p.m. Oct 15 and 22. For ticket information, call 734-764-2538, visit tickets.music.umich.edu or visit the ticket office 9 am to 5 pm. Monday-Friday, 10 am to 1 pm. Saturday at 911 N. University Ave., Ann Arbor at the Michigan League Building.