Confession time: I am not too fond of Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory. The much loved, Gene Wilder (who is excellent in it) starring film has impressive set designs, the special effects hold up rather well, and a heart-felt whimsical tone. However, a musical is only as good as its songs, no matter the talent on display in other areas. For me, all the songs, save one, in the Roald Dahl adaptation are boring and unmemorable. Now comes Stuck, which doesn’t even have the fantastic qualities that made Willy Wonka a family classic.
Based on the stage show written by Riley Thomas, Stuck concerns half a dozen subway passengers who are trapped on the same train car when it gets delayed due to a police investigation. Though this does not impact the story at all, as it is just a reason to get the theatrical, possibly homeless Lloyd (Giancarlo Esposito), the stern Sue (Amy Madigan), the self righteous but well-meaning Eve (Ashanti), the shy, artistic Caleb (Gerard Canonico), the dancer Alicia (Arden Cho), and the hardworking family man Ramon (Omar Chaparro) stranded together.
The universe has a way of bringing people together when they need it most, even if those people don’t know each other. Thus, as the minutes tick by, these strangers press each other’s buttons, reveal prejudices they might not even realize they harbor, and face their darkest secrets. With each song, a person’s backstory or how they relate to one another comes into clearer focus. Caleb’s sister Maggie (Reyna de Courcy) is sick and to cope, he drew a comic that turns her into a superhero, all the while running into Alicia on campus and at her studio. Not too long ago Sue’s son died of cancer, so she is happy to hear about Eve’s situation. Eve, on the other hand, is unsure what to think about the life growing inside. That uncertainty is compounded even more with Ramon’s story of struggling to keep up with bills and the everyday necessities for his wife and multiple children. All the while, the one-person Greek chorus of Lloyd keeps an ear and eye out on all that is happening.
“… as the minutes tick by, these strangers press each other’s buttons, reveal prejudices they might not even realize they harbor, and face their darkest secrets.”
Stuck is adapted by Michael Berry, who also directs the musical drama. He creatively uses the limited space of the (mostly) single location, in part by leaning heavily into the fantastical nature of musicals. During Caleb’s first significant number, Magnificent Maggie, his sister’s superhero alter ego, comes onto the train and has a big fight number with her arch nemesis. It is a creatively inspired way of showing Caleb’s comic while also offering more than just a drab train car for the viewer to look at.
Sue sings about how bitter she has become since her son Christopher (Tim Young) died and the editing, with one scene flowing out the train, into a hospital room, and then fades to Christopher playing the piano while his IV is still hooked up. It is an effective and visually engaging way to bring her story to life. The direction and editing throughout maintain such lively activity throughout the entire film.
As strong as the directing is, the writing leaves a lot to be desired. The way Alicia factors into Caleb’s story is a letdown; it should be noted she portrays said villain during the comic book battle. Even worse is that her story, in which Alicia reveals she was attacked and raped (I think) is not given it’s just due. The damning ramifications such an act would have on a victim is glossed over, and Alicia’s more sexualized song does not come across as empowerment. Based on what the audience is shown, she has moved on with her life but the male gaze is strong during her dance act, so any semblance of catharsis gets lost in the shuffle. Still, she comes across more fully human than poor Ramon who could be cut out of the movie entirely with very little changing.
“As the mysterious, maybe poet Esposito brings charm and gravitas to a vastly underwritten role…”
Beyond all that though, are the songs themselves. The character of Eve has the only good song at around the 45-minute point. Excluding that one, each and every number is an awful, atonal mess. Lyrically, they might be a bit heavy handed but not too shabby overall. The melodies though sound unfinished and grating, as if the composer broke their keyboard halfway through and couldn’t replace it. On this very site, Alan Ng reviewed Mary Poppins Returns, and as a criticism, he noted that all the songs were too wordy. I am betting that if pressed, he could recall the tune to one or two of those songs despite his issues with them. Stuck does not have that at all, with just guitar riffs randomly playing over a drumbeat that is in desperate need of a metronome.
The actors are trying but thanks to the weak story structure and featureless music, there’s only so much they can do. Amy Madigan, who will always be McCoy to me, does a bang-up job selling her character’s heartbreak and hostile attitude. As the mysterious, maybe poet Esposito brings charm and gravitas to a vastly underwritten role. Everyone else is, but they don’t entirely overcome the flaws in the screenplay.
If you are already familiar with Stuck due to its stage run and enjoy the songs, you’ll find a lot to like in this movie adaptation. The direction keeps things visually engaging, and the editing is flawless. Sadly, for me, the stories don’t connect well enough to justify the whole fated aspect and all but a single song, in this musical, are some of the worst I have had to ever endure.
Stuck (2019) Directed by Michael Berry. Written by Michael Berry. Starring Giancarlo Esposito, Amy Madigan, Arden Cho, Ashanti, Omar Chaparro, Gerard Canonico, Tim Young, Reyna de Courcy.
3 out of 10 Earplugs