She: “D’ya think giving me a song is going to fix anything?” He: “Well, it can do, yeah.”
There, in a nutshell, is the premise underlying “Sing Street,” which fervently believes in the power of music-making as a way out of a dead-end life.
Imperfections and all, the Huntington Theatre Company’s exuberant production of “Sing Street” packs such a visceral punch in making its case that by the end it’s got you believing it, too.
The speakers are Raphina (Courtnee Carter), an 18-year-old aspiring model, and Conor (Adam Bregman), a 17-year-old schoolboy in 1982 Dublin who is determined to win her heart, though she appears to be way out of his league. Moments after they first meet, Conor impulsively tells Raphina he’s in a band — he isn’t — and asks her to appear in the nonexistent band’s music video.
When Raphina assents, Conor’s mission is clear and urgent: to pull together a band and enlist a videographer from among his classmates and, oh yeah, write some new wave-ish songs. It is at this point that the pulse of “Sing Street,” which has hitherto been proceeding somewhat sluggishly, begins to quicken. The actors play their own instruments, and as Conor’s hastily assembled band improves, the show does too, and the performances by Bregman and Carter deepen.
Directed by Rebecca Taichman, with choreography by Sonya Tayeh, “Sing Street” has an appealingly scruffy, off-Broadway feel. And indeed that is where the show was originally staged in 2019, at the New York Theatre Workshop. Performances were slated to begin on Broadway in March 2020, but then the pandemic hit. The “Sing Street” creative team used the downtime to make a few tweaks to the musical. The producers are hoping the Boston production leads to a Broadway run.
I guess we’ll see. What can be said is that while the gritty “Sing Street” could scarcely be more different than Taichman’s dreamlike, transcendent 2019 Huntington production of Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” the director evinces a similar skill at making a stage come alive while meshing many moving parts into an organic whole.
The show’s intensifying energy level is abetted in no small part by the churning dynamism of Tayeh’s choreography and the period-specific video design by Luke Halls and Brad Peterson. Giant video images surge within the Wimberly Theatre, complementing and sometimes fusing with the live performances.
A year before the time period in which “Sing Street” is set, MTV had launched, and Conor and his bandmates are heavily influenced by the look and sound of Duran Duran, those early innovators of the music video. Costume designers Bob Crowley and Lisa Zinni have considerable fun with the “look” part of that equation.
But when Conor is not performing, things are grim on the homefront. His squabbling parents (Billy Carter and Dee Roscioli) appear headed for a breakup; his sister, Anne (Alexa Xioufaridou Moster), is trying to maintain her focus on her studies amid the domestic chaos; and his perceptive and intelligent but emotionally adrift older brother, Brendan (an excellent Dónal Finn), hasn’t left the house in months. (What Jamie Tyrone is to “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” Brendan is to “Sing Street”: a tragedy in the making, unfolding on the periphery.)
Conor’s unhappiness deepens considerably when his parents inform him that, because money is so tight, he has to transfer from a fee-paying school to a free Catholic school run by the Christian Brothers, led by the dictatorial Brother Baxter (Armand Schultz).
Not enough of the songs in “Sing Street,” whose music and lyrics are by Gary Clark and John Carney, are truly memorable. But what comes through with gale force is what those songs mean to the kids who are playing and singing them. It helps that “Sing Street” is that rare show where cast members actually look the ages they’re supposed to be.
Each member of that cast finds a way to leave at least some imprint of personality on the show, from Jack DiFalco as a school bully turned ally; to Ben Wang, Gian Perez, Anthony Genovesi, Elijah Lyons, and Michael Lepore as band members; to Diego Lucano as the band’s manager; to Anne L. Nathan as the big-hearted mother of one of the band members, who allows them to rehearse at her house.
Some of the dialogue bookwriter Enda Walsh gives them to say, adapting the 2016 indie film written and directed by Carney, is a bit on the nose. Do we need Brendan to declare that “We all need a blast of cultural joy” when the entire musical is devoted to that proposition? Brother Baxter, the principal, isn’t much more than a cartoon villain, and the youthful trauma that Raphina reveals to Conor late in the musical is by now an overused plot device.
But Walsh’s script is smart and incisive in the ways it reminds us that rebellion and aspiration can sometimes be the same thing. That combination was also evident in other musicals or movies of which “Sing Street” bears DNA traces: “The Commitments,” “School of Rock,” “American Idiot,” too many to count.
Like them, its fundamental message is that music — making it or even just listening to it — can be a refuge or an escape; that it can give you an identity at a time in your life when you’re searching for one; and that, sometimes, to express yourself is to find yourself.
Especially if you’re young, and I suspect that’s the audience that will gravitate to “Sing Street,” that’s a message that really can’t be heard often enough.
Book by Enda Walsh. Music and lyrics by Gary Clark and John Carney. Based on the movie written and directed by Carney. Directed by Rebecca Taichman. Choreography by Sonya Tayeh. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company in association with Sing Street Broadway LLC. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Oct. 2. Tickets $25-$175. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org