Review: 'Stereophonic' is the best play of the season by a mile

All eyes at Sunday night's Tony Awards will be laser-focused on "Stereophonic."

June 14, 2024, 4:17 AM

All eyes at Sunday night's Tony Awards telecast on CBS will be laser-focused on "Stereophonic," the most nominated play in Broadway history. It deserves every one of its 13 nods. And if you can't get to New York to catch it live in its awesome blend of story and song, glimpses presented on Tony night are bound to get you chomping at the bit for the inevitable movie version.

"Stereophonic" is set over a year in two California recording studios, where a 1970s rock band -- not so loosely based on Fleetwood Mac -- takes wickedly comic aim at its own musical and sexual anxieties as five band members and two engineers record a historic album sparking with breakups, blow and personal warfare, just like Mac did with "Rumours," often called rock's greatest soap opera.

PHOTO: Director Daniel Aukin gives a speech during the curtain call of "Stereophonic" Broadway opening night at the Golden Theatre on April 19, 2024 in New York City.
Director Daniel Aukin gives a speech as actors Chris Stack, Benjamin Anthony Anderson, Cornelius McMoyler and playwright David Adjmi look on during the curtain call of "Stereophonic" Broadway opening night at the Golden Theatre on April 19, 2024 in New York City.
Valerie Terranova/Getty Images

Kudos to Will Butler, formerly of Arcade Fire, for creating songs that evoke the Mac era to perfection and then go their own glorious way. Until the end of this three-hour theatrical epic, we never hear a complete song, though you can download the finished versions, including the yearning "Seven Rivers," the stomping "Masquerade" and the heartbreak of "East of Eden."

What gifted playwright David Adjmi, aces director Daniel Aukin and an insanely talented cast of seven accomplish goes way beyond a "Behind the Music" gossip-fest about a British American band that wants to kill each other. "Stereophonic," the best play of the season by a mile, digs deep into what happens to art when it's battered by sex, drugs, fame and crippling anxiety.

"Stereophonic" opens as the actors, five of whom sing and play instruments despite little experience, enter the recording studio -- an elevated, empty, glass-enclosed sound booth waiting ominously for the magic to happen. We hear only snatches of conversation that play like a dissonant orchestral warmup, mixing offhand remarks about a broken coffee machine with dire hints of an ego Armageddon.

Stoner Reg (a fantastic Will Brill) on bass and wife Holly (Juliana Canfield of "Succession") on keyboard/vocals link up with fellow Brit Simon (Chris Stack) on drums. If you're thinking John and Christine McVie and Mick Fleetwood, you're on the right track.

The newest members are Americans, vocalist Diana (a best-in-show Sarah Pidgeon) and guitarist/vocalist/control freak Peter (a stellar Tom Pecinka), who are meant to evoke memories of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. That they do, and you can cut the tension with a knife.

"Stereophonic" Broadway director Daniel Aukin gives a speech at curtain call as the cast and creative team look on during opening night at the Golden Theatre on April 19, 2024 in New York City.
Valerie Terranova/Getty Images

The only bond that sticks among this fractured five belongs to the women. Unless you count, and you should, lead engineer Grover (Eli Gelb) and his mostly mute assistant Charlie (Andrew R. Butler), who listen in on the in-fighting behind the glass booth to hilarious effect.

Gelb seizes the role of this lackey turned powerhouse producer and rides it to glory. And Pidgeon, tracking Diana's journey from insecure wannabe to blazing star, is an acting and singing sensation. Start engraving Tonys for these two, pronto.

It's almost a half hour into the show until anyone sings. It's the nervous Diana offering a few failed attempts at "Bright," a real beauty of a song. It'll be way longer than that until you hear these hostile creatives actually sing and play together in genuine harmony. The scene is electrifying, a thrillingly alive rush of theater electricity that will be talked about for years.

But what makes "Stereophonic" some kind of miracle is the way it goes its own way to catch flawed humans, whom we get to know in dazzling, unhinged detail, in the exhilarating act of inventing themselves. Bring on the Tonys for this phenom: It's a showstopping knockout.