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Stereophonic: A thrilling ‘Behind the Music’ play rocks Broadway

NEW YORK (AP) – It’s July 1976 in a Northern California recording studio and the rock ‘n’ roll band cutting their latest album is exhausted and wary. The coffee machine is broken. Never mind, there’s always cocaine — and heaps of it.

“That’s not the same thing,” one of the musicians says.

“It’s the exact same thing,” she is told.

So begins “Stereophonic,” one of the most thrilling pieces of theater in years, a play with better songs than most musicals on Broadway and an ensemble that rocks, literally. You won’t need any of their coke to last the three-hour-plus run time.

Playwright David Adjmi tells the story of a Fleetwood Mac-like band with five members — some married, some dating — working on music with two sound engineers over a life-changing year, with personal rifts opening and closing and then reopening. The riffs also change, as songs endure dozens of takes and changes in tempo.

The play, which opened Friday at the Golden Theatre, is a hypernaturalistic meditation on the thrill, and also the danger, of collaborating on art — the compromises, the egos and the joys. It’s an ode not just to the music business but perhaps to the theater world, too.

“Stereophonic” is a very human play, featuring deep moments about love and the pursuit of art interspliced with digressions about dry cleaners and Marlon Brando. We learn to care about each of the five characters and even anticipate their reactions. Will they survive this album intact?

David Zinn’s marvelous set, with the engineers manipulating dials and faders in the office-hangout spot, in front of a glassed-off recording space, allows for multiple conversations at once, including one intense argument completely offstage that the engineers overhear.

The effect is almost to turn the actors into instruments themselves, alternating silence for one or two moments in one scene and in another with their volumes raised high. There is cross-talk, mufflers and even the clunk of machines whirring when a recording is started. It’s the most interesting soundscape since “The Humans.” Kudos to director Daniel Aukin and the nimble cast for making it all so seamless.

Will Butler, formerly of Arcade Fire, provides the original, layered blues- and folk-based songs — perfect for progressive rockers in the late ’70s. The songs are instantly funky, head-bobbing bangers and audience members will care about them, too. (What happens to them at the play’s end is a twist)

An existential angst hangs over this recording studio in Sausalito, California. Long hours in the studio mean the inhabitants lose track of time. They work into the wee hours, forgetting what day they’re in. “What month is this?” one asks.

Outside the studio, we learn this unnamed band is getting famous, but inside there is no escape from microaggressions, breakups and perfectionist demands, all amplified by substance abuse.

The two women in the band — keyboardists and singers played by Sarah Pidgeon and Juliana Canfield — learn to stick up for themselves over the course of the play, while the men — the bassist played by Will Brill and a drummer by Chris Stack — rebel against the dictatorial singer-guitarist, played by Tom Pecinka. Eli Gelb and Andrew R. Butler play the hapless engineers with increasing self-confidence.

Adjmi writes the awful, push-pull fights of couples brilliantly: “Just because I don’t unravel the thread doesn’t mean I don’t know where it is,” one women says to her partner. He also captures with accuracy and wit a scene in which three guys have a random, pot-fueled discussion about houseboats.

Pidgeon’s character, Diana, a budding and gifted singer-songwriter, reveals a profound insecurity, one not helped by her coolly demanding band leader and lover. “I can’t be a rock star and be this stupid,” she says. Unhelpful is her partner: “You can’t ask me to help you and not help you. I can’t do both.”

One of the best moments is when this dysfunctional couple are asked to harmonize together in the studio, sharing the same mic but separated by Canfield’s character. The two on-again-off-again lovers are at each other’s throats — “My skin is crawling. I can’t stand being near you,” Diana hisses at him — until the signal to record begins. Then all three voices beautifully merge into one for the recording. Go figure.

Toward the end, one of the engineers asks Diana why she’d ever consider staying in this noxious band, calling it kind of a nightmare. “This was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Diana replies.

Those in the audience know the feeling.

This image released by O&M/DKC shows the musicians during a performance of “Stereophonic” on Broadway, in New York, April 1. PHOTO: AP
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