nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 26, 2006
The program for this new Fringe musical by Sean Williams (music), Mac Rogers (book), and Jordana Williams (lyrics) informs us that Competitive Air Guitar "actually exists," which I certainly didn't know: you learn the darnedest things in the darnedest places, and that's just one reason FringeNYC is so terrific. It's also terrific as a haven for shows like this, where a host of young actors can continue to hone their craft in a (relatively) low-risk environment. The creators of Air Guitar have a lot of ambition and heart, but as this very uneven piece demonstrates, they have some stuff to learn about how a musical play needs to be put together.
A key lesson would be to start with a protagonist that everybody involved (backstage, onstage, and in the audience) can root for. The main character of Air Guitar is a fellow named Drew, and even though Stephen Graybill works hard to make him an interesting and likeable three-dimensional kind of guy, he's hampered by a script that makes this a pretty difficult task. Here's the situation: Drew played guitar in a rock band in college (seven years ago), and while his bandmate/best friend/roommate Steve has moved on to (almost) becoming a doctor—and Drew himself is now married to a former "groupie" named Celeste, who is pregnant with their first child—he still cherishes the apparently impossible dream of musical success. When we first meet him, he's playing "solo guitar" at a local club where the same twelve "fans" come to listen to him every week; he is, in other words, at a dead end in his career, and seems pretty miserable and defensive about it.
Is Drew genuinely talented? Is Drew honestly passionate about his art? Is he hiding behind it, afraid of growing up? Is he ready to be a father? Answers to any of these questions might help us understand and care about this young man, but unfortunately not one is supplied in Air Guitar. Instead, we see Drew obsess (for no clear reason) about air guitaring, particularly the alleged "world champion," a grotesque Scandanavian named Ulrich who keeps haunting Drew's thoughts. Drew says, wrongheadly, that air guitar is not an art form; and he says (absolutely right-headedly, it seems to me), that as a bona fide "real" guitar player he wants nothing to do with it. Nevertheless, in the sitcomiest of fashions, Steve and Celeste conspire to enter Drew in an air guitar contest. The rest of the story plays out in mostly predictable sequence, with Drew becoming a champion air guitar player and (against the odds) doing some significant growing up along the way.
It's feel-good stuff, and the actors give their all to a plot that makes relatively little sense. The music, played on stage by the metal band Gods of Fire, sounds great, though I wouldn't say that it's especially packed with variety; the lyrics are clever but don't always feel like they're coming from the same mouths as the book. Stephen Wargo's direction is brisk, but Christopher Davis's choreography is far less original and inspired than one might hope a show whose entire premise rests on a contemporary hybrid of dance and rock & roll might be.
As noted, Graybill is earnest as Drew and he sings nicely; Becca Ayers is shrill but generally interesting as Celeste. Michael Poignand (Steve), Clayton Dean Smith (an air guitar promoter (?) named Jammin' Bread), and Renee Delio (various roles) are high-energy but perhaps push too hard. Jeff Hiller's Ulrich, though, is an embarrassment, insulting Scandanavians and air guitarists alike, especially the latter group, since this supposed world-champion devotee of that unusual art seems unable to ever convince, even for a second, that he's ever seen a guitar played, let alone pantomimed playing one himself.