Brandon Williams and the cast of ‘Gettin’ the Band Back Together.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Things didn’t augur well for my visit to Gettin’ the Band Back Together, the enjoyably emptyheaded, better-than-expected new Broadway musical at the Belasco about the New Jersey garage band in the title. Shortly before I left for the show I learned that, for undisclosed reasons, the lead actor, Mitchell Jarvis, wouldn’t be appearing. I rebooked for another night but even then he was replaced by an understudy.
Having an understudy (or swing) take over the lead in a Broadway musical right after it’s opened is rare, although reminiscent of the show and movie 42nd Street. Scott Richard Foster, the actor having his Peggy Sawyer moment (“You’re going out there a kid, but you’ve got to come back a star”), isn’t a kid, and stardom may prove elusive, but he’s so talented you wouldn’t want your money back.
The role is Mitch Papadopoulos, a 40-year-old stockbroker who’s lost his job and moved back to Sayreville, NJ, to live with his sexy mom, Sharon (Marilu Henner, wearing skintight duds with the body of a 20-year-old), a piano teacher and onetime groupie. Mitch, a singer-guitarist who once fronted Juggernaut, a high school rock ‘n roll garage band, learns that the house is being foreclosed by realtor Tygen Billows (Brandon Williams, sensational). Tygen fronts a heavy metal band, Mouthfeel, which Juggernaut once beat in a Battle of the Bands. Further firing up their rivalry is the beautiful Dani (Kelli Barrett), Mitch’s ex and Tygen’s current.
Tygen, airheaded, ultra-vain (“My hairline is advancing,” he brags), and given to popping his gym-toned pecs, is followed by a clutch of clueless acolytes, among them the comically obsequious Ritchie (Garth Kravits). Never having gotten over losing to Juggernaut, Tygen will do anything to obtain Mitch’s trophy, even agreeing to tear up the foreclosure if Mouthfeel loses to Juggernaut in an upcoming Battle of the Bands.
This simple, if not simplistic plot, is padded with a panoply of likably goofy characters, particularly Juggernaut’s musicians. Each has his own romantic subplot and each comes to realize how their reunion has overcome the complacency of their lives.
There’s the guitarist Bart (Jay Klaitz), the Jack Black-like, inept math teacher with a yen for Sharon; the drummer Sully (Paul Whitty), a would-be detective in love with a cop named Roxanne (Tamika Lawrence); and keyboardist Robbie (Manu Narayan), a dermatologist of South Asian descent, who falls for a blonde hotty named Tawney (Becca Kötte). An audition to replace a dead band member discovers high school kid Rickey Bling, a bling-wearing, hip-hop rapping, electric guitarist, who gets a show-stealing performance from 16-year-old Sawyer Nunes.
Gettin’ the Band Back Together is called an “improvised musical” because it was created over a six-year period of improvisations by writer-producer Ken Davenport and a group called the Grundleshotz; there are potholes on its musical highway but these are more than made up for by Mark Allen’s upbeat, infectiously catchy music and lyrics, as in songs like the title number and “Jersey.” Garden State jokes run rampant, of course, with constant references to local greats, like Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi.
Regardless of the show’s inanity, I was almost embarrassed to be enjoying it as much as I was. The enjoyment factor dwindled in Act II, with its buoyant but borderline squirm-worthy scene of the band playing for an Orthodox Jewish wedding (including Rickey’s hot licks cover of “Hava Nagila”), followed by a newspaper headline, “The Goys Are Back in Town.” (I nearly called this review “The Goys in the Band.”)
Other drawbacks include an awkward subplot involving Aerosmith axman Joe Perry and the genesis of (and royalties for) “Back in the Saddle.” A running joke about Tygen’s inability to pronounce Papadopoulos also dries up quickly, especially given the prominence of that name in recent news. And the need to provide a backstory and relationship for each character weakens and overextends the dramatic arc, making the show at least 45 minutes too long.
Director John Rando’s (Urinetown) rumbustious staging, on Derek McLane’s cartoonish sets, illuminated by master Ken Billington, has the actors unabashedly performing to the audience (Brandon Williams is a master at this), even running up and down the aisles. Some of Emily Rebholz’s more extreme costumes must have inspired backstage yocks when the actors first saw them, and Chris Bailey’s choreography is just right for the kind of silly mayhem the show prefers (like a trophy cup chorus line).
Is it tacky? Yes. Is it banal? Also yes. Is it clichéd? Yes, again. But is it entertaining? Absolutely.
Gettin’ the Band Back Together
131 W. 44th St., NYC
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, Theater Life.