Theater & art

Stages

Roller disco inspires parody musical in Cambridge

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Jacqui Grilli and Ahmad Maksoud rehearse a skating routine from “Roller Disco the Musical!”

CAMBRIDGE — One Sunday afternoon in 2005, Jen Wineman was cleaning up her place in Brooklyn, N.Y., when she flipped on the TV for company. A decades-old film caught her attention.

“I had never heard of this movie before, and I basically could not look away, and I abandoned cleaning and just sat there and watched,” the director says. “Because it was on network TV, it took, like, three hours, and I just sat there staring at it.”

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

“How can I direct a show on skates if I’m not on skates?” says director and choreographer Jen Wineman.

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What cinematic classic so enthralled her?

“Roller Boogie.”

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That’s right, the 1979 roller-disco musical starring Linda Blair, post-“Exorcist,” and “introducing” the soon-to-be-forgotten Jim Bray. As a kid in suburban Pennsylvania in the 1980s, Wineman had spent a lot of time on roller skates.


“The thing about the movie that really drew me in the most was just how earnest it is and how high-stakes the roller skating is, and I thought it was hilarious. I felt like, there were so many moments in the movie where I wanted everybody to start singing because their feelings were so big, but it just never happened,” Wineman says. “And I thought, my God, this would be the funniest musical ever, especially if everyone in the musical is on roller skates the whole time.”

Flash-forward to Tuesday, and Wineman, 33, is on roller skates at Oberon, directing an afternoon rehearsal of “Roller Disco the Musical!” She also co-wrote the show’s book and choreographed the giddy, many-wheeled parody, which plays Oberon on Wednesday and Thursday nights through
Aug. 30.

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“How can I direct a show on skates if I’m not on skates?” Wineman says. “So I pretty much wear roller skates for every rehearsal, and I actually realized it’s helpful for directing, because you can zip around the room much quicker.”

Set, like the movie, in Southern California, the musical stars Jacqui Grilli as Debbie Sinclair and Ahmad Maksoud as Johnny Max. She’s a rich girl from Bel Air; he’s poor but the best skater on the Venice boardwalk. Their star-crossed romance gets entangled in a plot, played out in short-shorts and headbands, involving the upcoming Big Boogie Contest and the fate of their favorite roller rink, which is targeted by “real estate thugs” represented by Debbie’s lawyer father.

All resemblances to the plot of “Roller Boogie” are fondly intended, and Wineman says she has watched the movie many times in preparation.

“I learned they didn’t invent irony till the ’90s, and that’s
really informed the acting style,” she says, deadpan. “The actors have to be completely earnest in their delivery, because if you have irony on top of irony, it cancels out; it isn’t funny.”

During a rehearsal break, Wineman indeed zips around, trying out one of the downstage ramps, then showing a cast member how to use Oberon’s back bar as a ballet barre to practice her skating-on-one-foot pose. When it’s time to rehearse the big middle-of-the-show number, she sits down at a table, ringside.

The mirror ball spins, the colored lights flash, the recorded music plays. Johnny and Debbie bicker, then make up and belt out a duet about “Learning to smile, learning to love, learning to make it through together.” As they sing and skate, a veritable Village People of togetherness rolls out through curtained doorways for a big finish that’s as politically correct as 1979 could be: The cowboy and the Indian chief! The Arab and the Orthodox Jew! The cop and the crook! All skating together!

The songs are by composer Eli Bolin and lyricist Sam Forman, who wrote the book with Wineman.

“It’s deeply ’70s style,” Wineman says. “With every song, you feel like you can kind of hear what it is reminiscent of: Oh, this is a little bit Bee Gees, or this is a little Donna Summer, or, oh, that’s the Carpenters love song. But Eli definitely has his own style, so it is original music, which will just make you feel all of the things you felt when you heard the originals.”

Wineman and Forman were introduced by a mutual friend who knew she was talking about a roller-disco musical.

“For me,” Forman says, “when I’m adapting something from a preexisting source, I don’t want to work on something where the performances were so iconic in the original or so beloved” that they become an obstacle to comic riffing.

Evidently, that wasn’t a problem here. “It kind of became wilder and funnier and zanier with each draft,” Forman says.

They put the project on hold while Wineman studied for her master’s degree in directing at the Yale School of Drama. There she took a mini-class in self-producing and pitching from soon-to-be American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus and her husband, Randy Weiner, who is now producer of Oberon, the ART’s second stage.

“I happened to be driving Randy to the train station because I was one of the people who had a car, and I wasn’t even trying to pitch him. I just told him, I have this idea for this show,” Wineman says. “When Diane got the job here, he contacted me and said, ‘You should really come do your roller-skating musical here.’ ”

Wineman graduated from Yale in 2010 and got to work in earnest with Forman, amid other projects for both along the way. Now she’s aiming her skates toward off-Broadway in 2013.

She says she’s not worried about her Oberon show’s scheduling convergence with that other roller-disco musical, “Xanadu,” playing across the river at SpeakEasy Stage Company. “If it’s a wave of [roller disco] coming back,” she reasons, “that’s only a good thing.”

Wineman, who was under 12 during her own roller-rink period, has fond memories of the time. She remembers, for example, what happened when the Cars’ “Shake It Up” came on the sound system, and the DJ would tell everyone to do the gator. All the kids her age would lie down and wave their skates in the air, and the older kids would pick a winner for craziest socks. She thinks the winner got a pizza party, although her brother believes it was popcorn.

In any case, Wineman says, “We have the gator in the show.”

Lyric’s 2012-13 lineup

Lyric Stage Company this week announced most of its 2012-13 season, opening with Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” Sept. 9-Oct. 15, followed by “The Chosen,” adapted by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok from Potok’s novel, Oct. 19-Nov. 19. Next come a pair of Broadway plays: David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish,” Nov. 30-Dec. 31, and Moisés Kaufman’s “33 Variations,” featuring Paula Plum and James Andreassi, Jan. 4-Feb. 4, 2013. Lynn Nottage’s Hollywood comedy “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” runs March 29-April 29, 2013, and the Betty Comden-Adolph Green-Leonard Bernstein musical “On the Town” hits the stage May 10-June 10, 2013. A seventh show will be added. Subscriptions are on sale at 617-585-5678 and www.lyric
stage.com. Single tickets will go on sale in late summer.

New Rep festival to debut

New Repertory Theatre is about to launch its first Festival of New Voices, featuring readings of four plays by New Voices Playwriting Fellows, local dramatists all. The plays are “Directive 47” by Colleen M. Hughes (June 9, 2 p.m.), “Good” by James McLindon (June 9, 6 p.m.), “Reconstruction” by Anna Renée Hansen (June 10, 2 p.m.), and “The Circus,” by Emily Kaye Lazzaro (June 10, 6 p.m.).

Admission to the festival at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown is free, but reservations are requested: 617-923-8487.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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