It’s a bold move, to kick off your feel-good musical with a number ridiculing its likely audience.
But Gettin’ the Band Back Together, which opened tonight at the Belasco Theatre, does a remarkably good job of taking a collection of seeming missteps—a show stacked with stereotypes, platitudes, and plot contrivances—and, with happy acknowledgement of all those deficiencies, turning them into a genuinely enjoyable if perfectly inane night at the theater.
This is an original Broadway musical, as its Tony-winning producer, Ken Davenport, who also is also co-author of the book, takes the stage to point out in a pre-show introduction (that’s included in the script). And while that’s true in that it is neither a revival nor something derived from a pre-existing property, it is also true that this “original” in only that dictionary sense. It is, in fact, the most hackneyed, predictable story you could imagine.
Mitch Papadopoulus is a onetime garage band player from Sayreville, N.J.—Exit 124, the show points out—who grew up, moved to New York, and got a finance job, lost it, and moved back home. He’s itching to get out, but, inevitably, he ends up getting comfortable, reuniting that band, helping out his old friends, and—spoiler alert—winning back the high-school girlfriend he never got over.
But here’s the thing about Jerseyans, and I say this as the alumnus of a childhood at Exit 145: They’re all in on the goof. They know what everyone thinks about Jersey, and they (mostly) think it too. A little bit as defense mechanism, and a little bit because they’re wised up, they’re the first to laugh at a good Jersey joke.
And so that opening number, “Jersey,” featuring high hair and tricked-out cars, dancers carrying bags from the Mall at Short Hills, ought to be offensive but somehow isn’t. In fact, it’s a great distillation of what’s to come.
Because everything that follows is sort of dumb and a more than a little confusing. Mom is either still mourning dad or else is a Mrs. Robinson in waiting—but she’s played by Marilu Henner! His best friend, Bart (Jay Klaitz), is a sad-sack stoner loser—but he’s also a hilarious character actor who steals nearly every scene. His nemesis, Tygen Billows (Brandon Williams), is a nonsense-speaking, highlighted-hair foreclosure king—who’s somehow both a mobbed-up menace and a trapped-in-high-school goofball.
It’s so full of Jersey namechecks—conspicuous verisimilitude amid the consumption—that one starts to suspect paid product placement, and yet its 1990s Central Jerseyans call it Six Flags. (Trust me, Mr. Davenport: In that time and that place, it was always Great Adventure.) (But, then, which one would today play to place the product?)
But it’s also so committed to its goofiness, so good-natured and having so much fun, that it’s impossible not to enjoy yourself. The music (and lyrics, by Mark Allen in his Broadway debut) is generic rock, but—at least for Jerseyans—generic garage rock is always welcome. (Despite your best intentions, the refrain of the main theme, “Gettin’ the Band Back Together,” might well be stuck in your head days later.) Derek McLane’s crayon-illustration of a set is a perfect match for the show’s tone. John Rando’s direction is sloppily big-hearted. And the performers are all singing their hearts out.
Henner is game and gamine, perhaps sometimes a bit out of place but still always radiating her Marilu Hennerness. Mitchell Jarvis is stolid and hardworking, if less than entirely charismatic, as Mitch. Klaitz is a goofy delight. Manu Narayn and Paul Whitty, as two other sad-sack friends, more dutiful than Klaitz’s Bart, sing their character numbers beautifully. And Kelli Barrett as Dani, the girl who got away, is the real deal: fierce, sexy, and intense. You wouldn’t want to leave her behind in Sayreville, either.
The show is too long. It’s plot mechanics are creaky. Some of those character numbers should be cut, delightful as they are—darlings waiting to be killed. (Bart’s, which is hilarious, is also too dirty for a family show.) And yet it’s all just a really good time.
But what do I know? I’m from Jersey.
Gettin’ the Band Back Together opened August 13, 2018, at the Belasco Theatre and runs to September 16. Tickets and information: gettingthebandbacktogether.com