Bright Lights, Big City, a musical. The title alone promises several good things. Based on Jay McInerney’s seminal 1980s novel of the same name, Paul Scott Goodman’s stage adaptation of Bright Lights, Big City is a ‘rock musical’ about being too young not to be a magpie in the face of the glittering decadence of The Big City (specifically, New York in the 1980s), even if you know that the alluring sparkle and the society it represents are as empty as the life you’re leading therein.
‘I am not the kind of guy/ Who should be in a place like this/ At this time of the morning/ Sunday morning, 6 A.M,’ sings as-yet-unsuccessful writer Jamie (Paul Ayres), the central character, in the first verse of the first song of the play. It is a refrain that will be repeated throughout the show (and very probably in your head all the next day). And it’s an incredibly efficient, lovely, funny way of setting up the central conflict of this musical, the central conflict in the lives of the aspiring young, the should be versus the is now.
You see, Jamie knows from the very beginning that the life he’s leading is not fulfilling and that the city which once represented his dreams is now, more likely, divesting him of them. But, it’s fun, and he doesn’t quite know what else to do. So he parties, he ignores his family, he neglects his art. Paul Ayres plays this divide very well in Jamie – sweet and smart, but also flawed and floundering.
In spite of its somewhat generic songs, and its often painfully straightforward lyrics – flaws written into this musical by Goodman more than a decade ago – this production of Bright Lights, Big City (directed and designed by Christopher Lane) is pretty entertaining. And, I think it makes the most of what is, essentially, a poorly-written musical. With their brilliant energy and lovely voices, the cast give the show an appropriate amount of seductive sparkle which makes it fun to watch, even as you’re cringing through the awkward gimmick of lyrics like, ‘I wanna have sex tonight/ I wanna have sex tonight/ Come on! /Come on!’
Those lines, which state rather than evoke, are emblematic of this show’s lack of nuance and overriding flaws. This musical has so many things to work with – a wonderful experimental novel, the power of music in a small space, the joy of incessant parties, the ideals of art and the young, the struggles we all face in trying to become human. But instead of harnessing the power in all of these things and allowing them to play off of one another, instead of revelling in them, Goodman turned them into a sort of black-and-white melodrama. It becomes a matter of Jamie’s saccharine family versus his sinful friends; the distraction of the city versus the simplicity of country life. So, while it made for a pleasant enough evening’s viewing, Bright Lights, Big City, a musical, was ultimately disappointing to me in its refusal to say anything particularly meaningful or interesting about quite a few subjects which I generally find to be both.
Bright Lights, Big City is playing at Hoxton Hall until 25th November. For tickets and information, visit the website.