From its first moments, Gettin’ The Band Back Together feels like the tackiest show on Broadway, an impression advanced by its lazy plot, uninspired garage rock score, dopey jokes, and clichéd characters. Yet, for all its obvious mediocrity, there is an odd and grudging realization by the show’s last moments : Gettin’ The Band is kind of fun.
What makes it so are the performers who portray the band members, each of whom gets at least one number that shows off a depth of talent that transcends the caricatures in which the show has trapped them.
All production photos at NewYorkTheater.me
Ken Davenport starts off Gettin’ The Band Back Together with introductory remarks that are surely intended to establish a friendly, informal tone, but feel so amateurish and self-regarding they wind up an annoyance. Davenport is a well-known figure on Broadway, a prolific blogger, a crafty marketer, the Tony-winning lead producer of Once on This Island, with some two dozen Broadway credits as producer, marketer and/or manager. He has two new jobs in Gettin’ The Band – he wrote the book (his first for a Broadway show), with the help of a group of friends reminiscing and doing improvisations, which he labels The Grundleshotz. (He tells us he had a Barry Manilow tribute band, called “The Barely Manilows.”) Davenport also has appointed himself the MC, bouncing up on stage to shout a welcome, and then complain that we didn’t react loudly enough. “What you’re about to see,” he announces, “is one of those rare things on Broadway these days: a totally original musical.”
Um, no. Gettin’ The Band Back Together may not be adapting a specific movie, or staging a collection of old songs, but the proceedings trigger memories of the many movies, musicals or TV shows that you could describe with the words “male mid life crisis,” “middle aged rockers” and/or “New Jersey.”
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Mitch Papadopoulos (Mitchell Jarvis) is fired from his job as a stockbroker in New York on his 40th birthday, and unhappily moves back in with his mother Sharon (Marilu Henner, in astonishing good shape) in Sayreville, N.J. Cue a “Welcome to Sayreville” road sign (“former home of Jon Bon Jovi and Greg Evigan from My Two Dads”) and a song entitled “Jersey” performed by the ensemble in teased wigs riding around in cartoon cars. (Mitch: “I never thought I would find my ass/ in Jersey.” Ensemble: “Hell, yeah, just sit tight,/let us pump your gas.”)
Mitch runs into his old pal Bart (Jay Klaitz), now a math teacher at the local high school, who suggests they put back together their high school band, Juggernaut. This gains urgency when Mitch is confronted by his old nemesis from high school, Tygen Billows (Brandon Williams, a strutting, time-warped villain who is a fount of running gags, such as his mispronunciation of Mitch’s name and his failure to remember his father’s aphorisms.) Now a rapacious landlord who owns 73 percent of downtown Sayreville, Tygen threatens to foreclose on Mitch’s mother. But Tygen also remains a long-haired rocker who still smarts that his band Mouthfeel was defeated by Mitch’s band Juggernaut in the Battle of the Bands two decades earlier. And so Mitch makes a wager with him: Let the bands compete again in Sayreville’s annual Battle of the Bands, which is conveniently taking place the following Saturday. If Juggernaut wins again, Tygen will tear up the foreclosure notice.
On this thin thread is strung a series of subplots, which are all variations of the same theme: Each of the band members is more or less disappointed at how life has turned out, and each is searching, or at least longing, for a mate: Sully Sullivan (Paul Whitty) is a cop now, reluctantly studying to become a detective, cowed by his brother and superior officer; Rummesh Robbie Patel (Manu Narayan) is a dermatologist who wanted to be a pediatrician, but was cowed by his father; his father also has given Robbie a deadline to find a spouse, or he will organize an arranged marriage. And Mitch still longs for the girl he wanted in high school, Dani Franco (Kelli Barrett)…who is dating Tygen!
The fifth member of Juggernaut died two years earlier (On his tombstone we see “I told you I was sick.”) , and so the others hold auditions for a lead guitarist. Enter Ricky Bling (Sawyer Nunes), a 16-year-old student of Bart’s. The others don’t want a kid…until they hear him play.
I’m not sure it’s a spoiler to point out that, during the two and a half hours of Gettin’ The Band Back Together, each of these characters gets a love interest – most hilariously Bart. And it’s largely thanks to these romances that the performers are allowed to shine through their characters’ goofy personas – Jay Klaitz in the ribald “Bart’s Confession,” Paul Whitty in the silly but charming “Life Without Parole.”
For better or for worse, though, the musical number that most audience members will certainly find the most memorable occurs at the reconstituted band’s first gig, arranged through Ricky Bling’s connections – a Hasidic wedding, in which Sawyer Nunes as Ricky, having draped a traditional Jewish tallit around his hip-hop outfit, performs a rap version of “Hava Nagila.” (“Mazel Tov, Y’all/It’s time to have a ball/Make a ruckus with your tuchis/Until the last call.”)
What makes the absurd Jewish caricature of Ricky Bling work is Nunes, himself a teenager, a virtuoso on the guitar and a Broadway veteran of Matilda and Finding Neverland. He will not only emerge from this production unscathed; he is sure to get bigger and better, though perhaps forced to leave behind what is reportedly his own real-life band, which is called Laundry Day.
The Battle of the Bands to which the entire musical has been pointing is an anticlimax, and the ending contrived. Gettin’ The Band Back Together could have been a more sophisticated comedy about the ways that the culture encourages middle-aged men to remain childish, but the show itself is too deliberately childish to try for anything more profound than a knowing wink at its own silliness. It’s an odd fit for Broadway, more likely to find an appreciative audience Off-Broadway, or even Off-Off Broadway. In any other week, the shortcomings of such a Broadway show might have been more irksome. But Gettin’ The Band Back Together opened the same week as Pretty Woman The Musical, and in that battle, it deserves the trophy.
Gettin’ The Band Back Together is on stage at the Belasco (111 W 44th Street, between Broadway and Sixth, New York, NY 10036)
Gettin’ The Band Back Together
Book by Ken Davenport and The Grundleshotz with additional material by Sarah Saltzberg, Music & Lyrics: Mark Allen
Directed by John Rando, choreographed by Chris Bailey, sets by Derek McLane, costumes by Emily Rebholz, lighting by Ken Billington, sound by John Shivers
featuring Mitchell Jarvis, Jay Klaitz, Paul Whitty, Sawyer Nunes, Brandon Williams, Marilu Henner, Tamika Lawrence, Kelli Barrett, Becca Kötte, Garth Kravitz, Manu Narayan, Noa Solorio, Ryan Duncan, J. Elaine Marcos, Rob Marnell, Jasmin Richardson and Tad Wilson. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell