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October 11, 2013


Three New Musicals in Six Days

Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler sang in BAKER STREET “What a Night This Is Going to Be.” Well, starting last Friday, I thought, “What a week this is going to be,” for I’d be seeing three musicals in six days: two out-of-town tryouts and one show on Broadway.

Thirteen people worked on the book of GETTIN’ THE BAND BACK TOGETHER, at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. That’s not as bad as it seems; Ken Davenport worked with the dozen members of an improv group called The Grundleshotz to come up with a show that could be called JERSEY BOYS AND GIRLS.

Mitch Martino, suddenly 40, has been canned from his Wall Street job and has no
recourse or apparently any savings; he must move back home to Sayreville, NJ (or Exit 124, if you will) to live with his mother. That gives birth to the opening number “Jersey!” in which the chorus states that the state is “a helluva place.”

Frankly, it must be; no one has moved except Mitch: not his former girlfriend Dani; his arch-rival Tygen; nor his former garage bandmates Bart, Sully and Robbie. As for Kevin, the other band member, he’s both stayed around and moved on -- to the cemetery.

Now Bart’s a high school math teacher who admits he doesn’t know much about his subject. Sully’s an umpteenth generation cop. Robbie – born Rummesh Patel – is a dermatologist. (How smart of the writers to include an Indian, for Jersey has a significant South Asian population.)

Dani and Tygen are now dating. He’s become a powerful man in town, the owner of 17 businesses and plenty of real estate, including the homes of Mitch’s mother and Bart, who are each way behind in mortgage payments and are facing foreclosure.
And yet, Tygen still has his garage band Mouthfeel from his teen years. It enters a battle of the bands concert each year, which has paid off to the tune of 22 consecutive trophies.

But Tygen is still rankled that 23 years ago Mitch’s teen garage band Juggernaut beat Mouthfeel. In the hard-to-swallow plot, if Mitch gets Juggernaut back together, enters this year’s battle of the bands and succumbs to Mouthfeel, Tygen will forgive tens of thousands of dollars due on the two houses.

Is this the Jersey mentality? A guy with all these assets cares about what happened nearly a quarter-century ago? He can’t move on? Twenty-two trophies aren’t enough? Davenport and Company should at least have a local radio station offer significant prize money to up the stakes.

The show would be more compelling if a headhunter called Mitch with a bunch of interviews that would interfere with the band’s rehearsals. What if he got a solid job offer that would start on the day of the battle of the bands? Mitch might be kept later than he assumed on his first day, and of course he couldn’t blithely say “Goodbye, I’ve got to play with my garage band.”

The plot seems a little FULL MONTY (in the scenes involving auditions to replace Kevin) and the ending is a bit BRING IT ON. And yet, Mitch reaches one worthy conclusion. What did he get from taking the supposedly safe road to Wall Street? Could he have been any worse off now if he’d simply pursued his first love of music?

Sully subscribes to the Paper Mill Playhouse and occasionally cites lyrics from musicals, but the authors have avoided stereotyping and have made him straight. In fact, Sully only decides to rejoin the band as its drummer once a female cop says that she has a thing for drummers.

Decisions such as those don’t make Jerseyians seem too astute. But the musical is intent in putting Garden Staters in a low-class light as a gold-neck-chain crowd, where adults still relish popcorn balls and Rice Krispie/ Marshmallow Fluff treats. Mitch and his buddies fondly remembers the time in high school when they tortured a hamster. But the most offensive line goes to Bart, who says with a shrug, “I’m a New Jersey high school teacher. What do I know?”

Despite its merciless mocking of New Jersey, GETTIN’ THE BAND BACK TOGETHER enraptured its audience. The crowd laughed and applauded incessantly with an air of “Yes, these people exist, but I’m not one of them.” If New Jersey can enjoy hearing itself humiliated, imagine how much fun New York will have with it – especially because Mark Allen’s music serves well, John Rando’s direction is spot-on, and the cast is sensational. And finally, it has the smartest use of pulling-an-audience-member-on-stage that I’ve ever seen.

Much better is HONEYMOON IN VEGAS at the aforementioned Paper Mill Playhouse. Andrew Bergman has improved his screenplay by giving more thought to the characters. Betsy knows that Jack has promised his mother that he’d never marry, so five years into the relationship she’s aware that playing the husband card is futile. So she switches to having him imagine life as a daddy of a lovely child. It helps.

Those who know the movie might have wondered why Jack out-of-the-blue suggests to Betsy that they have their wedding in Las Vegas. Here, Bergman gives them friends who are soon getting married there, so that at least puts the idea into Jack’s head.

Here Mom keeps popping up in Jack’s memory and imagination, which gives Nancy Opel more chances to shine than Anne Bancroft got in the film. Such reappearances could have led to a song in which Jack tells off his mother once and for all, but when that scene arrived, Jason Robert Brown was wise to go for a tender ballad instead. Jack, after all, did love his mother, and our seeing just how much makes us like him.

Disliking him would be impossible under any circumstances, given that Rob McClure is playing the part. The actor who made an indelible impression as Chaplin shows that he is just as much at home in a contemporary piece. Listen, I consider Cicely Tyson in THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL as one of the greatest performances I have ever seen, but she had two tiny moments that struck me as phony. I saw no such moments from McClure, in a pin-point perfect, 100% successful performance.

Tony Danza plays Tommy, the hood who expects to take Betsy away from Jack because she perfectly resembles his beloved dead wife. That plot point in the film always smacked of VERTIGO, and in the musical Bergman is smart to admit it in an offhand line.

Danza’s voice is small, but you have to love the look on his face while he’s doing soft-shoe; it says, “Can you believe I’m pulling this off?” Indeed he is, while also exuding a genuine warmth that James Caan almost had in the film.

Again Bergman improves his screenplay by having Tommy do something even more insidious to win Betsy. Once again, Danza makes us not hate him because he shows a man whose sense of fair play was eradicated so long ago that he just doesn’t know how to put himself on the right path. Danza gives us the impression that if someone showed it to him, he’d walk the walk.

The on-stage orchestra gives an actual overture, full of Jason Robert Brown’s ring-a-ding-ding melodies that ring true. (Love the pianist who thrusts his head forward and backward in time to the music.) The snippets heard in the overture sound even better when they show up in the show. However, I feared that Brown would create a big musical number for the Hawaiian chief who’s a musical comedy fan; in the film, he cites GRAND HOTEL, LES MIZ and SOUTH PACIFIC. It’s a throwaway bit in the movie, but a lesser songwriter would have seized the chance to rhyme “I’m loco for COCO and, you know, JUNO” ad nauseam. And the audience would have wondered why this guy was singing so much about this subject.

Besides, musicals have become too self-reverential, anyway. That’s why Neil Simon and Hal David, when writing PROMISES, PROMISES, were wise not to have Chuck Baxter receive tickets to THE MUSIC MAN as he did in the source material THE APARTMENT, but instead a pair for a Knicks game. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t have had that great song, “She Likes Basketball.”

One of Brown’s best lyrics has Jack mention “I like Broadway once a year.” Well, to dust off and paraphrase the cliché, if he has one show to see this year, it should be HONEYMOON IN VEGAS which should be soon on Broadway.

BIG FISH, of course, is already there. And I was looking forward to telling you about the Oct. 9 performance. But then the announcement came that because Norbert Leo Butz couldn’t perform, all press would be switched to a different night. So it turned out to be two musicals in three days. One can’t have everything.

         — Peter Filichia

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