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Opening Night has the kind of scrappy charm that you want out of a musical. It’s shaggy and flawed but it’s also fun-loving and freewheeling. The story of a Broadway stage manager struggling with personal demons from his own seemingly failed Broadway career, the movie may not have the polish of a Hollywood production but it makes up for it with moxie and the can-do spirit of an underdog production with nothing to lose.
Topher Grace (That 70’s Show) stars as Nick, the stage manager for a Broadway production called “One Hit Wonderland.” The show within the movie stars N’Sync’s J.C Chazez, sending up himself with gusto and a hint of poignancy, playing a one hit wonder singer taking a journey that is part A Christmas Carol and part It’s a Wonderful Life. The theme of the musical is the theme of the movie: can someone bounce back after early success becomes a quick failure?
Relative newcomer Alona Tal shines as Nick’s recent ex-girlfriend and chorus girl Chloe who winds up thrust into the lead role opposite Chasez when the show’s lead actress Brooke (Anne Heche) suffers a blow to the head and is accidentally dosed with Ecstacy in one of a couple plots that stumble their way on stage and quickly off without the best possible resolution. I was hoping Heche would be given something more to play here, she hints at depths of sadness in the character, but sadly she ends up a bit of a plot device before a credits scene sendoff that, at the very least, has a funny punchline courtesy of scene-stealing comic Paul Scheer.
In his first feature, film director Isaac Rentz makes up for what he lacks in polish with a strong sense of humor. Opening Night may not be a laugh riot but the whole movie is consistently amusing with Taye Diggs getting most of the big laughs as a diva dancer eager to get with as many of his fellow dancers, male or female, as possible. Diggs’ charming hedonism has a lovely, dirty, funny payoff.
Diggs along with Paul Scheer, Rob Riggle, Johnny Ray Gill, Lauren Lapkus, and Lesli Margherita round out an ensemble who must have been having a great time on-set. There is a sense of fun and charm that radiates off the screen from the entire ensemble and it’s hard not to get caught up in the fun. I could pick apart Opening Night if I wanted, call out scenes or subplots that slow the plot or a musical number that stops the film cold for a moment, but this cast is so charming that my complaints feel like nitpicks. I enjoy Opening Night too much to spend time pulling strings.
The key to Opening Night are the performances of Grace and Tal and both are winners. I have long been a fan of Grace’s nebbishy, angst ridden style, one he parodied wonderfully in Ocean’s 12 so very long ago. Grace has wandered in the woods for a while as he struggled to find projects that fit his persona and in Opening Night he’s found a character that fits him like a glove. I loved the pathos he brought to this failed, cynical dreamer afraid to open his heart again following his devastating failure.
The ways that Grace and director Rentz weave the story of the musical on-stage through Grace’s backstage romantic struggle with Tal is a little overplayed but Grace gives the plot grace as he grounds Nick’s emotional struggle in a reality that fits the slightly heightened atmosphere of the chaotic backstage of a Broadway musical production. Grace and Tal have a fitful chemistry, that of former lovers trying to be friends and co-workers while avoiding and then finally forcefully confronting their feelings.
The final moments on stage in Opening Night are a little flat as one of our stars has a hard time belting his one hit wonder to the back of the room but when the rest of the cast steps in as backup, especially Taye Diggs, the awkwardness slips away and the charm of Opening Night rises again. The mixture of stage play and behind the scenes creates a wonderfully perfect atmosphere for the chaotic emotions of the leads and allows you to fully invest in their problems even as they might seem to build far too quickly, it’s theater, heightened drama and crescendos are part of the fun.
Opening Night isn’t perfect but for a shaggy little direct to video and on-demand cheapie, the film works like gangbusters. It’s a real charmer filled with fun, a little romance, great music and some terrific performances. I want to give one more shout out to J.C Chasez who is sort of the villain of the piece as a pompous version of a faded star. Chasez has a brave sense of humor and an uncanny stage presence as a Broadway star. I loved the moment when he gets real for just a moment with Alona Tal’s Chloe and with us in the audience. Chasez’s vulnerability is genuinely poignant and unexpected. It gives just an extra note to his character that allows him to be a human being instead of just a punchline and Chasez nails the moment. I could recommend the movie on that scene alone but the whole of Opening Night is deserving.