Backing Track at the Arden

A world premiere with “cabaroke” and heart.

Portrait of R Eric Thomas on a bench
Photo: Kap2ure Photography

As I finished telling my friend and theatrical companion for the evening about my recent debut into the worlds of queer dating and dating apps, the lights dimmed to signal the beginning of “Backing Track,” in which our protagonist receives a plethora of notifications from the popular queer dating app Grindr.

You don’t get that kind of coincidence anywhere else but the theater, folks. That’s why I keep coming back. Fortunately for myself and my fellow audience members, this show had far more laughs than the comedy that is my personal life.

“Backing Track” makes its world premiere on the Arcadia Stage of Arden Theatre Company, written by R. Eric Thomas. He has received acclaim for his other theatrical works (“Time Is On Our Side,” “Mrs. Harrison,” and “The Ever Present” have all seen world premieres in Philadelphia), his bestselling book “Here For It,” and for being a “person on the internet” with 48,000 Twitter followers and counting. His work with “Backing Track” is no exception to this deserved admiration, navigating the subjects of grief and love in all of their messy and beautiful complexities. I won’t spoil anything, but the first scene of Act Two tied together multiple character moments in a way that felt like watching an opera, if operas also talked about using a fake name on a dating app.

The plot of “Backing Track” centers around the childhood home of Avery, Jessica and their mother René, all of whom are grappling with the unexpected passing of René’s wife and the siblings’ mother. The home serves as both a central hub and a point of conflict: Who will shoulder legal responsibility for a place with so much emotional baggage? Can the house — and by extension, its family — maintain its place in a neighborhood that is becoming stranger and more gentrified every day? The work of this production’s design team makes the set feel so much like home that you feel compelled to walk in (note from a past front-of-house manager: please don’t!), then transports the space beyond reality with use of technicolored lighting and karaoke-style projections.

The six-actor ensemble of this production brings all of the heart and humor of the script to life. Brenson Thomas is hilarious and touching as our “cabaroke” (cabaret/karaoke) host Avery, with a stunning singing voice to boot. Also making their Arden debuts are Joseph Ahmed and Carl Hsu, both of whom left me excited to see them on this or another stage again soon. Bi Jean Ngo brings an honest portrayal of that one woman in your neighborhood who always has a concern or 12. And Danielle Leneé as Jessica and Melanye Finister as Mel perfectly capture the highs and lows of navigating life’s biggest challenges with a family who ultimately loves each other despite the occasional gripe.

In a time when I and many others are trying to cautiously re-enter the world, “Backing Track” harkens back to a not-so-distant past (this play takes place in 2018, which already feels like ancient history) and reminds us that the most difficult and confusing times are best faced not alone, but side by side. Doing so using karaoke and “Titanic” is optional, but strongly encouraged.

“Backing Track” is running now until April 10th, 2022 on the Arcadia Stage at Arden Theatre Company. Tickets can be reserved at ardentheatre.org or by calling (215) 922-1122. Vaccination cards and state ID are checked at the door, and masks are required for all audience members regardless of vaccination status.

    • Portrait of CJ Higgins

      CJ Higgins (they/them) is a queer and transgender theatre artist who specializes in performance, music, devising, directing, production, and whatever else a show needs at a given moment because that's Philly for you.

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