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Review: Is the Provocative 'The Song of Summer' a Love Story?

by Adam Brinklow
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Jul 28, 2021
Jeremy Kahn and Monica Ho in 'The Song of Summer.'
Jeremy Kahn and Monica Ho in 'The Song of Summer.'  

"The Song of Summer," the latest from acclaimed playwright Lauren Yee to open at San Francisco Playhouse, namedrops both Britney Spears and Lauryn Hill within the first 20 minutes — perhaps in hopes of persuading us that this, too, is a story about how the merciless nature of fame and success run roughshod over unsuspecting young stars.

But Yee's woebegone pop star, Robbie (Jeremy Kahn, last seen in the horrifying but brilliant "Gloria" at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater in early 2020), recalls not those exploited women but instead is modeled on, of all people, Robin Thicke.

Yes, Robin Thicke. Possibly the most unlikable pop-cultural personage of the last decade, and one so far disconnected from the current zeitgeist that even writing his name feels like conjuring a ghost.

Like Thicke, Robbie has a hit song that's assailed for its misogynist lyrics; and also like Thicke, Robbie is facing litigation for possibly stealing the tune from Black artists.

But unlike Thicke, we're apparently supposed to find Robbie sympathetic, as he flees from his national tour after a panic attack and seeks solace with his childhood piano teacher (a salt-of-the-earth Anne Darragh).

Robbie's hapless flight is only partly motivated by a desire to go home again; really, he's chasing after Tina, his on-again, off-again childhood sweetheart who has more to do with his controversial hit song than we initially realize.

Monica Ho (last seen in A.C.T.'s "Top Girls") is wonderful as both the headstrong teenage Tina and her more well-rounded adult self. The latter turn particularly, in which we see her as both young and full of ambition but also paralyzed by regret at an early age, will resonate with millennial audiences.

To the degree that "The Song of Summer" works as a love story at all, it's because Ho propels it through force of personality, and the only times Robbie seems at all engaged are when the two share the stage and director Bill English allows their chemistry to flow.

But it's fair to ask what Tina sees in this guy, exactly? Kahn certainly looks vulnerable, with his constant hangdog expression and shrugging uncertainty about every little thing.

But Robbie is so passive that he can barely stand up under his own power. Nothing about Kahn's demeanor suggests pop star magnetism, and "The Song of Summer" affords him only a bare few seconds to show off anything like musical chops or hidden depths to his gangly, arrested adolescence.

Far from romantic, the idea of an emotionally unstable man chasing after a teenage crush from 12 years ago sets off every red flag imaginable. Tina must do all of the heavy lifting in the relationship, and one has to wonder: Does Robbie even deserve to have women around to bandage his ego all the time?

The plot gets stymied with a somewhat contrived misunderstanding that goes nowhere, and a predictable final twist that feels more like a bad omen than a happy ending.

There are still lots of things to like about "The Song of Summer," including Reggie D. White as Robbie's unapologetic manager, Joe, whose zest for his dialogue injects life into Robbie's moribund demeanor like Dr. Frankenstein channeling electricity into a body.

And both Yee's bittersweet eloquence and English's big-picture sensibilities still carry the day sometimes, such as Ho's opening lines reflecting on how cities are always changing but small towns remain constantly stagnant.

This, of course, is not literally true in this day and age, when towns like the one imagined in "The Song of Summer" are more often than not on the verge of collapse.

But it's a fair and honest encapsulation of what it feels like to live in such a community, and to fear that you can never take two steps forward without immediately being forced two steps back.

Like San Francisco Playhouse's brilliant "Hold These Truths" last month, "The Song of Summer" is open to a small live audience but will probably find wider viewership via online streaming.

With the city still only fitfully emerging from the worst of the pandemic, this show is a great opportunity to reconnect with San Francisco's greater artistic community. But it's a shame that so much of the program nevertheless feels disconnected from itself.

"The Song of Summer" plays through August 14 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street. For tickets and streaming information, call 415-677-9596 or visit SFPlayhouse.org.

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