REVIEW: “Gettin’ the Band Back Together”
When was the last time you saw a Broadway show where the producer gave a hypeman speech to rev up the crowd before curtain?
Chances are, never. It is certainly out of the ordinary, but so is “Gettin’ the Band Back Together”, a “totally original musical”—as producer and bookwriter Ken Davenport pointedly stated in his speech—that opened tonight at the Belasco Theatre.
Mr. Davenport is sort of right. While the situations, characters, and plot feel very familiar, “Gettin’ the Band Back Together”, for better or for worse, is a rare thing: a new musical not based on pre-existing material, without a real marquee star, opening nearly-cold in New York with only one prior production (at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick in 2013) under its belt.
That’s a gamble (approximately $13 million) amid a sea of endless jukebox recycling, popular movie adaptations, and big dollar corporate branding extensions, but despite featuring one of the most unremarkable and underwhelmingly derivative and generic rock scores I have ever heard in a theatre (music and lyrics by Mark Allen), “Gettin’ the Band Back Together” is a genuinely funny new guilty pleasure of a musical with a tried-and-true formulaic structure and a host of scrappy, likable characters who become endeared to you by the close of Act II.
I have a feeling others critics might hasten to pile on, but I have to admit: I enjoyed myself, and I see the easy appeal of this sitcom-light, suburban working class, tri-state-audience aimed entertainment, skillfully directed by John Rando (a Tony winner for “Urinetown”) with a witty irreverence and winning sense of self-awareness and self-deprecation. No opportunity for a joke is missed, but every moment feels like part of a whole; Mr. Rando’s vision is complete, well-beat, and delivered with a joyful exuberance by the cast, some of whom had a hand in the musical’s crafting (more on that later).
Leading man Mitch Papadopoulos (Mitchell Jarvis, “Rock of Ages”) is unceremoniously fired from his fancy Wall Street job on his 40th birthday, forcing him to return home to Exit 124, aka Sayreville, New Jersey (the real town, birthplace of Jon Bon Jovi, is a co-producer), and live with his athleisure-wearing, Rice Krispy Treat-baking “cool mom”, Sharon (Marilu Henner, “Taxi”), aka “Mitch's Mom”, who is a former Aerosmith “traveling rock enthusiast”.
As if time had implausibly stopped in the interim, Mitch, a bachelor with no apparent friends or savings, soon runs into his high school girlfriend, Dani (Kelli Barrett)—now a single mom to a trigger-rebellious daughter named Billie (Noa Solorio)—and high school rival turned local real-estate developer, the outrageously silly and tan antagonist, Pontiac Solstice-driving Tygen Billows (Brandon Williams).
Borrowing the classic “I can’t pay the rent!” (or in this case, mortgage) plot conflict, Tygen agrees to forgive Sharon’s late payments and $120k mortgage if Mitch wins a 20-plus-years-later “battle of the bands” rematch between his defunct band, “Juggernaut”, and Tygen’s still-rocking band, “Mouthfeeler” (once featured in a Trident gum commercial!).
As luck would have it, the 24th annual “Western Eastern Central Middlesex County Battle of the Bands”, representing a plot of land later described as having a whopping seven-mile radius, is coming up. So, with no other choice—there’s always no other choice in this situation—Mitch collects his old high school buddies to, well, get the band back together for one last chance to save his mom’s house from foreclosure and maybe rekindle his high school romance in the process.
That band features Bart Vickers (Jay Klaitz), a high school math teacher who isn’t so good at math and has a thing for Mitch’s Mom; Michael “Sully” Sullivan (Paul Whitty), a local cop who is training for detective but really just wants to do musical theatre; Dr. Rummesh "Robbie" Patel (Manu Narayan), a reluctant dermatologist facing an arranged marriage with resignation; and newcomer Ricky “Bling” Goldstein (Sawyer Nunes), a high school math student of Bart’s, and cringe-inducing wigger, who replaces deceased band member Kenny following an audition sequence featuring a nun, a naked Pilgrim, and a local drunk.
Much of the action fittingly takes place in Mitch’s garage whose door serves as mini-second-proscenium, and other spots evocative of small-town New Jersey. The set, by Derek McLane, consists of smoothly gliding flats painted like cartoons, perfectly matching the tone of the piece and reflecting its characters.
I should pause here to share a word about the unique development of this new musical, which features a book by aforementioned producer Ken Davenport and a collective of writers and performers known as “The Grundleshotz”, with “additional material” (whatever that means) by Sarah Saltzberg. In the spirit of Michael Bennett’s famous sessions for “A Chorus Line”, much of this show was developed via improvisational rehearsals, then honed into a slick product over the past six years.
These collaborative improv roots often result in jokes that are obvious (read: easy) or peculiar, and scenes that are somewhat sketch-like—a musical theatre-inspired dance-off sequence (choreography by Chris Bailey) is particularly funny. However, it also delivers moments of hilarity as only a more-is-more/just say yes approach can.
Yes, the comedy is decidedly lowbrow and juvenile ala “Naked Gun” or “Austin Powers”. You, like me, might think those movies are stupid, but you might also, like me, keep returning to them every once and awhile for a carefree, nostalgic laugh. The book, like those movies, is also well-crafted, with seeming non-sequiturs planted throughout that later provide payoff. Again, it’s not particularly smart or sophisticated, but it is funny.
The idea of spending two hours and thirty minutes with a group of people whose best days of their lives were in high school may sound insufferable in real life, but in a musical, specifically this one, it leads to harmless, ridiculous, spoon-fed fun.
In an era full of raves and pans, I deign to self-describe this review as gloriously mixed. There is something deliciously old-fashioned about this show that harkens back to an earlier time when entertaining but unmemorable original musicals filled the boards each season, usually as star vehicles.
Like an old car, “Gettin’ the Band Back Together” is solidly built. Even if it lacks the finesse of more highbrow fare and boasts a blandly nondescript rock score that is staggeringly forgettable, it hits every beat where it should, summons a tonally complete world, and more than once left me both rolling my eyes and crying with laughter.
Know what you are getting yourself into, but for those (probably from Long Island or New Jersey) looking to unplug and have a mindless good time, consider checking out what lies beyond Exit 124.
Bottom Line: “Gettin’ the Band Back Together” is a genuinely funny new guilty pleasure of a musical with a tried-and-true formulaic structure and a host of scrappy, likable characters; the score is unfortunately unremarkable, derivative, and forgettable, but the book, developed through improv rehearsals, is sitcom-light, irreverent, well-beat, and really silly. Others may pile on, but I must admit: I had fun.