Stereophonic review – dazzling 70s-set music saga is a Broadway triumph

<span>Juliana Canfield in Stereophonic.</span><span>Photograph: Photo: Julieta Cervantes</span>
Juliana Canfield in Stereophonic.Photograph: Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Beyoncé Knowles memorably said: “People don’t make albums any more. They just try to sell a bunch of little quick singles.” More than a decade ago, she spoke with startling accuracy on the wash-rinse-and-repeat cycle of music-making. The nameless record executives who want ditties in the key of TikTok. Success itself is an underwhelming boom-bust.

Related: The Outsiders review – 60s-set classic makes for a solid, if unspectacular, Broadway musical

Stereophonic, one of Broadway’s most striking plays of the season, is an allegory of industry greed and artistry. But the play, as a work itself, serves as a triumphant example of what happens when art has the time to develop, to home in on the basics of craft, character and spirit.

Written by David Adjmi over 10 years, it follows a fake British-American rock band in their California studio as they make an album in the 1970s. But it isn’t just another fictional work redolent of Fleetwood Mac, or a usual screed against the music industry. Adjmi, with direction from Daniel Aukin, has carved a compelling tragedy on power, art-making and the derided women propping up male “geniuses”.

The brilliant ensemble communicates through sensual touch, petty low-blows, and music (they all skillfully play their own instruments). The album, fueled by cocaine binges, has left the group exhausted and frayed. They work furiously, recording dozens and dozens of takes into the early mornings (casual mentions of the take count elicits actual gasps).

In this tragedy, our bandmates get exactly what they want, just not what they need. The announcement that the band achieved a lauded album – a dream come true – sits like a bomb about to detonate.

While mostly heard in quick spurts, music by the former Arcade Fire member Will Butler is memorable, intricate, and foreshadows the Icarian cost of “making it”. Masquerade, set to a thick, funky bass line, spells it out clearly: “Got my ticket to the masquerade / My soul is sold and the money paid.”

In this powder keg, Adjmi constructs a spectrum of patriarchal villains – and the women who maneuver around them. Peter (Tom Pecinka), the band’s maven and de facto leader, is tyrannical and abusive, particularly to his girlfriend/bandmate Diana (Sarah Pidgeon).

Pecinka and Pidgeon are precise and vivid. To revolting effect, Pecinka nails Peter’s stuntedness (he hilariously skips his brother’s appearance in the Olympics to “make a fucking record”). Pidgeon is equally gripping, constantly forced to negotiate her personhood and artistic merit (she is the band’s vocalist and only member who doesn’t “play” an instrument). Even when she pulls free from Peter’s grasp, the album forces them to collide again.

When coming off of coke binges, bass player Reg (Will Brill) screams in the face of his wife, Holly (Juliana Canfield), the band’s keyboardist. Brill injects sympathy and grief into Reg’s hollow, narrowing in on his flavor of narcissism amid attempts at sobriety. Canfield moves with a subtle and affecting heartbreak in attempts to carve boundaries.

Canfield and Pidgeon, as a friendship and individually, are fierce in their love. Strategic with their sexuality, their camaraderie is another bright spot in Stereophonic’s landscape. Simon (Chris Stack as the band’s resident “nice guy” and drummer) is a referee between the couples, adored by all. Stack is magnetic and charming (in a British way), bringing a necessary adolescence to Simon’s tantrums and flirtation.

Stereophonic is meticulous. Bell bottoms and billowing shirts expertly mark the play’s “free love” era (Enver Chakartash designed a kaleidoscopic wardrobe of costumes). The scenic design by David Zinn is granular in creating the recording studio, complete with wooden walls and brown carpeting. Amid spare cable and analog hardware, the studio’s control panels are squarely framed as God.

The studio’s sound booth – a flurry of instruments where the band records – is visible through panes of glass, a literal fishbowl. Adjmi smartly plays with the division of private and public space, which Aukin navigates with a thorough hyper-naturalism. At times, the sound engineers Grover and Charlie (Eli Gelb and Andrew R Butler) unwittingly turn on the booth’s microphones to eavesdrop. They are a hilarious antidote to the band’s dysfunction, both endearing “yes men” until the rot is too much (Gelb brings a specific tenderness to Grover’s descent).

But the booth witnesses some of Stereophonic’s most wrenching moments. In the play’s second half, Diana re-records a track as Peter bludgeons her with criticism, demanding that she hit the right key. Behind the glass pane, she is treated like a specimen. Pidgeon brings intense sorrow to Butler’s aching tune: “Why do we have to choose when / Everything you got is right in front of you.”

It’s a chilling reminder – in love, in art – about what it truly means to get what you want, to not want what you get, to not know what you have.

What happens when the gold of achievement begins to taste like dirt?