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Theatre in Review: Gettin' the Band Back Together (Belasco Theatre)

Brandon Williams and cast. Photo: Joan Marcus

I caught up with the new tenant at the Belasco rather after the fact, having been bumped from a performance last week due to an illness in the cast. Meanwhile, the press pretty much filleted Getting' the Band Back Together, which was not entirely unexpected, given the pre-opening buzz. This is one of those shows that advertises itself as strictly for the people, not a bunch of snob critics who wouldn't know a good time if it bit them, but, ironically, it has yet to demonstrate any genuine popularity. Business started out weak -- even before the reviews, there was little interest -- and if its vaunted word of mouth is ever going to kick in, it had better be soon. One of the curious contradictions of Broadway musicals is that so many shows that proudly trumpet their high froth content often struggle to find an audience: See the currently troubled Head Over Heels, or, better yet, the now-shuttered Escape to Margaritaville, which even a marketing genius like Jimmy Buffett couldn't keep going. Meanwhile, people troop off in droves, nightly, to The Band's Visit and Dear Evan Hansen. It makes you wonder, no?

Then again, if a show like Getting' the Band Back Together -- the missing "g" practically screaming its populist intentions -- is the very model of a people's musical, then the citizenry should rise up in revolt. This is the rare show that tells you, right up front, what is wrong with it. In a brief audience warm-up session -- the sort of thing done to get attendees in a happy mood at televisions talk shows and the like -- we learn that it wasn't so much written as developed through a series of actors' improvisations. This explains the title page in the program, which assigns credit for the book to Ken Davenport (also the show's lead producer) and The Grundleshotz, billed as a group of writers and performers, with additional material by Sarah Saltzberg. Leaving aside the astonishing fact that it took three distinct contributory entities -- one of them consisting of several people -- to come up with this nonexistent story and popsicle-stick characters, this may explain the musical's ramshackle construction.

For Getting' the Band Back Together wanders from scene to scene with a blithe disregard for character or storytelling; nobody seems to have been assigned the task of making these discrete bits add up to anything modestly coherent. When the hero, Mitch Papadopolous, is ejected from his Wall Street job, he returns to his hometown, Sayreville, New Jersey. Based on what happens next, you'd think he had been living in Karachi, so out of touch is he with his family and friends. Practically on arrival, he discovers that his mother's home is under threat of foreclosure -- as is the home of Bart Vickers, his best friend in high school, now a pitifully inept math teacher -- and the villain waiting to toss them into the street is none other than Tygen Billows, the nemesis of Mitch's adolescent years. Tygen has a band, Mouthfeel, which enjoyed a moment of notoriety when it was heard in a television commercial for Trident gum, but he still bristles over having a lost a battle of the bands to Mitch's garage group, Juggernaut. So, Mitch proffers a rematch: If Juggernaut wins, the homes are saved. This means, yes, getting' the band back together, the members of which include Bart; Sully Sullivan, forced by family tradition to become a cop; and Rummesh "Robbie" Patel, a dermatologist whose father has forced him into accepting an arranged marriage. (The young lady is on the way from the subcontinent, with a wedding scheduled one week in the future.) Because one member of Juggernaut has died -- there's a breezy trip to the cemetery to establish another key fact that escaped Mitch's notice -- the group recruits Ricky Bling, a mouthy teen with rock-star guitar technique and, despite his Caucasian status, the mannerisms of Jay-Z.

That's the premise: basically, School of Rock, Male Menopause Edition. There are worse plots, but here it is thoroughly manhandled by a creative team that has no allegiance to anything but the next gag line. Plot lines come and go: Bart has long nursed his lust for Sharon, Mitch's mom, who, every inch a cougar, finds herself inexplicably drawn to an overweight loser her son's age. This leads to the most mortifying number, "Bart's Confession," in which he details his consensual S&M play with Sharon, causing Mitch to pass out, twice. Mitch also reconnects with Dani, his high school girlfriend, now a sadder-but-wiser divorcee with a daughter; as played by Kelli Barrett, she's a real charmer, but the fact that she is dating Tygen undercuts her severely, making her seem positively addled. Other sequences include the inevitable audition scene, featuring, among other things, a singing nun; a melee in a diner that erupts out of nowhere, landing the members of Juggernaut in jail; and a tryout appearance by the band at an Orthodox wedding -- I really can't explain this one, no matter how hard I try -- which includes a rap version of "Hava Nagila." There are many running gags, taking in such topics as Tygen's inability to pronounce "Papadopolous" ("I don't speak Spanish," he explains); Tygen's threats, which end, Zen-like, without a proper conclusion; a Hindu dating site called OK Krishna; a vegan frozen-yogurt chain called No-Yo; and Sharon's long-ago fling with Aerosmith's Joe Perry. Stereotypes abound: Indians, Jews, and gays are subjected to tired tropes -- although the one about midget would-be Hall and Oates impersonators is novel, I'll be the first to admit.

Working hard to keep this leaky vehicle afloat is the fine director, John Rando -- who does his best to maintain a light, bright tone -- and an attractive cast. As Mitch, Mitchell Jarvis rides herd on the nonsensical script, never letting a bit of condescension creep into his performance. The same is true of Manu Narayan, as Robbie, and Marilu Henner, as Sharon, who should be hired to bring her infectious good cheer and ultra-pro attitude to a genuinely entertaining musical. Sawyer Nunes demonstrates some star power as Ricky, and there are nice contributions from Noa Solorio as Dani's permanently outraged daughter and Tamika Lawrence as Sully's police force colleague, who'd like to arrest her man, permanently. None of these performers can make their material work, but they emerge with their likableness intact. Others, like Jay Klaitz (as Bart), Brandon Williams (as Tygen), Paul Whitty (as Sully), and Garth Kravits (as Tygen's dimwitted lieutenant) sacrifice their dignity for the cause.

The score, by Mark Allen, at least has a few attractive items, including the opener, "Jersey," and the title tune, but it is weighed down by too many duds; one number, "Second Chances," delivered by a weepy, broken-down lounge singer in that diner, seems to go on for several years. Chris Bailey's choreography adds some bounce to the proceedings. The production is surprisingly good. Derek McLane's niftily cartooned sets -- many of them reminiscent of Charles Schulz -- are filled with surprises, including a series of cutaway vehicles rolling around the stage, a giant inflatable for Mouthfeel's big moment, and a wall of lights that pays tribute to Robin Wagner and Tharon Musser's work in Dreamgirls. Ken Billington's lighting is an effortless pleasure, unnoticeable when it should be and filled with color and punch when the scene calls for it. Emily Rebholz's costumes amusingly delineate these ultra-broadly drawn characters; she also provides some hooty, Gladiator-meets-Star Wars getups for Mouthfeel's performance. John Shivers' sound design is loud but generally intelligible, and he solidly provides all the necessary effects, including crickets, cell phones, punches, and someone's jaw getting realigned.

Some very nice, talented people have gotten themselves into Getting' the Band Back Together, which can be best described as a tribute-band version of a Broadway musical -- it has the form but none of the content. The oh-it's-just-an-audience-show nonsense is really a cover for flagrant pandering on the part of the creative team. If they love the audience so much, why don't they try treating them with respect? -- David Barbour

(22 August 2018)

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