Decades ago when Manhattanites referred to a “bridge and tunnel crowd”, they simply meant commuters, but now they refer pejoratively to suburbanites of lesser social or cultural sophistication. “Gettin’ The Band Back Together”, a new musical about the reunion of a New Jersey high school rock band, celebrates “bridge and tunnel” and with a smile on its face gives the middle finger to elitists, many of whom will likely label this folksy, sometimes offensive, unoriginal production, a “bridge and tunnel musical.”
The heart of “Gettin’ the and Back Together” is in the right place: its theme is the restoration of the dreams of youth. When the single, just turned 40 (read mid-life crisis) Mitch Papadopoulos, native of Sayreville, a suburb stuck in the middle of nondescript northern central New Jersey, gets fired from his Manhattan stockbrokerage firm, he returns home to live with his mother, Sharon, former groupie, who still bakes Rice Krispie treats. Mitch had a garage band when he was in high school, but gave up his dream of rock stardom for the stable, money-making job. Mitch learns his mother’s house is being foreclosed by his arch-rival and high school nemesis Tygen Billows, now rock star who has built a real estate fortune from his commercial success in the music biz. Mitch reassembles the band with Bart, now a high school teacher (for whom Mitch’s mother has maintained a special affection over the years), Robbie, a dermatologist, and Sully, a local cop. The lead guitarist died, so Mitch recruits a high school, hip-hop punk, Ricky. To save the house he grew up in, Mitch and his band Juggernaut challenge Tygen’s band Mouthfeel in a Battle of the Bands. Meanwhile, single Mitch discovers his high school girlfriend Dani is Tygen’s main squeeze. Each of the other bachelor band members is missing a woman in his life too. When a female character appears for each of them, “Getting’ The Band Back Together” telegraphs immediately where it all ends up.
Producer Ken Davenport (Tony winner for Best Musical Revival for “Once on This Island”) pasted together the predictable plot from a series of improvisational rehearsals by a group of performers and writers called The Grundleshotz. Someone has peppered the book with a lot of inside-baseball jokes about New Jersey geography and suburban culture, rock music and nasty things that happen to Mafia bosses in men’s prison. A stereotype drunk wanders in and out of scenes like a gratuitous nod to substance abuse - a topic that, for a play about the rock business, this musical curiously ignores.
The score, of a bland Broadway-1980s rock mode, is by Mark Allen in his first Broadway outing. The lyrics range from unmemorable to a challenge to forget. In the duet “The Best Day of My Life” Mitch and Dani sing fondly about a high school date at Six Flags where Dani threw up her corn dog in a slurpie cup. There are two distinctive numbers in the second act. The very talented young actor Sawyer Nunes as Ricky leads a clever rap rendition of “Hava Nagila”, when the band gets tricked into playing an Orthodox Jewish wedding by the dastardly Tygen. As Bart, Jay Klaitz, who seem to specialize in roles in rock musicals like "Rock of Ages" and "High Fidelity", hams it up in “Bart’s Confession” where he fesses up to Mitch that Rice Kripsies bars aren’t the only treats he enjoys from Mitch’s mom. Really.
The cast does its job with fierce determination that this is going to be as much fun, damn it, for the audience as it for them. Marilu Henner of "Taxi "sitcom fame who plays Sharon the mom serves Rice Krispie bars to the audience at intermission. Mitchell Jarvis as good guy Mitch shoulders-on through all of it. Brandon Williams as bad guy Tygen mugs and muscles through his part.
Tony-award winning director John Rando, who has managed better material (“Urinteown”, “On the Town”), miraculously keeps it humming along, bit-by-hackneyed bit, using every directorial trick in the book. Chris Bailey, choreographer, is capable of more originality, as he demonstrated last year with “Jerry Springer – The Opera” at The New Group.
A rock musical about New Jersey couldn’t ignore Bruce Springsteen, New Jersey native and the USA’s favorite son of rock n’roll. At one point, Dani, a single-mom waitress, manages to purchase tickets to Springsteen’s sold-out Broadway show, which could cost a month’s wages or more for millions of Americans like her. It’s a sweet moment, but, cynically, belies the real cost of living to working class Americans. Pathetic, too, is how “Gettin’ the Band Back Together” reduces what Springsteen’s poignant song and music say about his Jersey roots and the American state-of-mind to vulgar sitcom with a crappy score.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!