Marching bands have gotten off far too easy for far too long. Somehow, they’ve had a pass saving them from the world’s satirists. I do seem to remember an old monologue by Robert Klein in which he mouthed a stadium announcer introducing a halftime show called "A Tribute to Mayonnaise" or something, but I think that’s about it. Their free pass has just been revoked by this improvisational style, one–act musical with a book by Becky Eldridge and Amy Petersen and songs and direction by Andy Eninger. Just imagine what might happen if South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker had discovered an unsold movie musical screenplay from the 1980s, and you’ll have the picture.
Had the movie been produced back then, it might have gone something like this: At preseason band camp, poor orphan Joey Cranford – who would have been played by Anthony Michael Hall but here is played by Joseph Cranford – is unexpectedly named Drum Major of the Elyria, Ohio High School Band by its martinet director Mr. Bradford (Ross Foti). The band is scheduled to perform at the halftime show of a Cleveland Browns vs. Cincinnati Bengals game on a Monday Night Football national telecast, but proposed school budget cuts threaten their ability to afford the trip. In fact, unless a local referendum providing funding for the arts passes – with the vote scheduled right after the televised game - the band might pass into history altogether. Will Joey be able to lead the musicians to glory at the Browns game? Will the referendum pass? Will the band geeks earn the respect of the jocks? Will Joey win the heart of the goth girl (Cynthia Francesconi, playing the Ally Sheedy part)?
Eldridge and Petersen claim to have been in a high school marching band like this one in the '80s, in a town "much like Elyria, called ... Elyria." Their show is as much a send-up of the '80s as of marching bands, and it’s amazing how the two subjects seem made for each other. Scene changes are covered by recordings of brass bands playing stuff like Survivor’s "Eye of the Tiger," and Queen’s "Mr. Roboto" as well as original recordings of '80s hits. The marching numbers are fully choreographed by Paula Stein with the help of Mik Erwin, a former Drum Major of the University of Wisconsin Band (of which I should disclose I was once a member). They nail the moves and look, down to the dazed look on the face of a drummer (Jarrad Apperson) who appears engaged in life-threatening rhythm making.
The performances are all done in a broad improv style, and though we’ve seen high school geeks and jocks done a million times before (they owe a big debt to Saturday Night Live), Band Geeks gives us a few more originals. Co-author Amy Petersen’s freshman Mennonite, Ruth, is one. She maintains a look of astonished delight throughout her first exposure to the outside world and Petersen keeps finding new ways to keep the joke funny throughout the show. Francesconi’s Goth Girl scores by establishing a real character without pushing too hard for a caricature. Bryan Bowden (looking like Lorenzo Lamas as the blond jock in Grease) makes a perfect dumb but redeemable football star (he alternates in the role with Matthew Lane).
Ross Foti is the cast’s standout, though, as the intense director Mr. Bradford, anguished by demons of his past as well as his anxiety over the band’s uncertain future. Foti knows exactly how hard to press Bradford’s unshakable belief in the importance of the band, and is a perfect counterpoint to the goofiness of the kids and the sweetness of Ed Jones in drag as fellow teacher Mrs. Love.
Eninger’s seven songs, parodies of '80s pop and rap, are there for the laughs, not for future cult status in cabaret, so you probably won’t be asking when the cast album will be released. With the songs' bright staging by Eninger and Stein, and music direction by Mandy Price, they add variety and energy to the 90-minute show, which after all, is about music, right? Ms. Francesconi did the costumes, which include all the right looks for '80s high school attire, plus real, bright red band uniforms.
Yeah, we’ve been there before ... to high school as well to Saturday Night Live, whose characters from Lisa Loopner through Mary Katherine Gallagher were influences on this piece. There’s enough that’s new and fun, though, to make it a worthwhile late night show. It plays at 10:45 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, so you can even catch it after an 8:00 performance of The Wild Party, like I did.
Band Geeks: A Halftime Musical runs Fridays and Saturdays at 10:45 p.m. through August 13 at Live Bait Theater, 3914 N. Clark St., Chicago. Admission is $15.00. For reservations, call 773-935-2747, or order tickets via paypal/mollyguard at http://www.mollyguard.com/event/17582590. More information at www.bandgeeksmusical.com.