Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Insulting and Tasteless Gettin' The Band Back Together
Forty-year-old Mitch Martino is a financial advisor who has been fired from his job in New York City. So Mitch is moving back to his mother's house in his hometown of Sayreville, New Jersey ("This is not what I planned/ Never thought I'd find my ass in New Jersey"). The main conflict involves a rivalry between Mitch and a nasty piece of goods named Tygen Billows. It seems that over twenty years ago back in high school Mitch and his garage band Juggernaut beat out Tygen and his band Mouthfeel in a Battle of the Bands, and Tygen has been fretting about it ever since. Somehow, despite carrying himself about like an aging, mentally handicapped street fighting greaser, Tygen is a rich and successful business man who owns 17 businesses and lots of real estate. Mitch's mother Sharon is three months behind in her mortgage payments, and Tygen is about to foreclose on her house. However, in order to get a rematch with Mitch, Tygen makes Mitch an offer that he can't refuse: if Mitch will reassemble his band and enter this year's Battle of the Bands contest to determine the best band in "western, eastern, central Middlesex County" and he beats Tygen, Tygen will waive the mortgage and give the house to his mother.
There is no attempt to make anything make sense in this cartoonish musical. Not only the story not make any sense, but there are no real people on stage acting like recognizable human beings with even a modicum of sense. Sullivan, who seems to purposely keep failing the sergeant's exam because he was forced to be a policeman by his father and brother who are on the force, resigns from the police force at age 40 and, untrained, embarks on a theater career by auditioning to play Curly in a community theatre production of Oklahoma! at the local high school. But don't worry, there are lots more characters and a lot more plotting with little more sense. So why can't I just laugh at the jokes and try to have some fun. Well, let me start by telling you about those cringe inducing scenes when I felt like fleeing the theatre (I really didn't want to let it all hang out, but I'm just getting angrier and angrier thinking about Band.)
Mitch's closest friend and long ago member of his band Bart Vickers beds Sharon, Mitch's mother. Of course, Bart has to "confess" to Mitch which he does in song. With increasing joy and volume, Bart rocks out, "I slept with your mother" ... "just last night, I was tied to your bed ... I don't care who knows ...", and then he folds his legs together at his knees, brings his rear end to top of his shoes and thrusts himself back and forth with his bent legs spread apart and, in a frenzy, simulates penetrating Mitch's mom. I didn't catch the lyric that accompanied this choreographic highlight, but it must have been brilliant.
The other cringe inducing moment comes at the top of the second act when we discover that the wedding that Juggernaut has been booked to play it is an Hasidic Wedding. Now, what can be funnier than ridiculously costuming Hasidic Jews in exaggerated versions of their traditional garb (i.e., short tight black pants with long white stockings which I have seen in historical representations, but have never seen worn in the Metropolitan area). Along with the rest, the garb is clearly represented here to be ridiculed. In the staging and the extended audience reaction it evokes, it is clear that the joke is not that Juggernaut is out of its waters, but those funny looking Hasidics.
Of course, I could enjoy the jokes and lyrics. Like that lyric for "Power Tool": "I nail you to the wall/ with wham, bam/ wham, man." Or from the title song: "Think of the girls we'll be laying." Or when Sullivan (the police officer who is with Juggernaut) sings in anticipation of the band playing again, "We'll be rockin' out our penises tonight." Here's one that you might like better than I do: Tygen advises, "Like my father said, It's alright to squeal, if you're facing twenty years to life." I mustn't forget the scene in which Juggernaut auditions guitarists. Only one guitarist auditions, a middle-aged priest with an acoustic guitarthe others are a teacher who wants to do a dramatic reading and a woman who is there to reenact Sally's famous routine in Katz's Deli from When Harry Met Sally. This is senseless, why not take this opportunity for satirizing different guitar styles. There is a serious moment of pathos when the members of Juggernaut consider how sad it is that these not particularly talented guys who only wanted to play in a band ending up with such terrible careers: a financial advisor, a school teacher, a dermatologist and a police officer.
The sheen and professionalism of the production and, for the most part, the quality of the performances are quantum leaps superior to the concept and the dreadful material. The quality of the amped up sound system (there are large banks of speakers on both sides of the stage) is superb. Aided by Doug Katsaros' ripe, lively arrangements, Mark Allen's upbeat, energetic music is initially enlivening. However, that pleasure fades because of the libretto and the songs sounding very much alike and repeatedly following the pattern of building by increasing their volume and stridency. Derek McLane's clean unit set features flat monochromatic representatives of alike suburban houses and roofs at the rear sides. Along with slide-in set pieces and furniture, it is quite adequate for a small musical. The book is by Ken Davenport and a group of writers and performers known as Grundleshotz with additional material having been provided by Sarah Saltzberg.
If the show were better it might matter, but I must note that Mitchell Jarvis is a totally unconvincing Mitch Marino. His entire persona, his carriage, his looks, his dress and his performing style are that of a confident, even cocky rock star. This guy was not an investment banker/financial advisor for twenty days, let alone twenty years. However, I would not be surprised if Jarvis is delivering just the performance that director John Rando ordered.
Jay Klaitz in the role of Mark Vickers displays excellent skills as a sketch comedian and does a superior job with the cited sophomoric cringe-inducing number in the role of Mark Vickers. Would like to see him in a better show. That does double for Alison Fraser who plays Sharon, Mark's mother who is into S&M and who in her youth was the squeeze for a fabled rock singer. She delivers a charming, brisk performance and does a fine job with her sub-standard Eastern regional New Jersey accent. It really doesn't matter to any of the artistic staff that she comes from the same New Jersey town as everyone else here, and she's the only one on stage who has it. Hopefully, Fraser will find a role and a property which is worthy of her skill.
Brandon Williams is a stand-up comedian who does more shtick than acting in the role of Tygen Billows. It's a performance that's appropriate to his role which is unsatisfactorily sketchy. Adam Monley (Sullivan), Manu Narayan (Patel) and Evan Daves (Bling) playing the balance of Juggernaut and their new recruit, and Michelle Duffy as Tawney Truebody, Mitch's old girlfriend now attached to Tygen, are foremost among a cast that performs well above the level of their material.
Making all this even more painful is the fact that this world premiere musical is the 2013-1014 season opener for the venerable George Street Playhouse. No one shares with me the subscription sales trends and general health of the theatre, nor am I privy to the show selection process. I assume that Artistic Director David Saint is trying to shake things up and draw new audiences here. Saint is a talented, serious theatre artist and he has maintained a overall high level of artistic quality at George Street for more than fifteen years. We will see where Gettin' The Band Back Together leads. If you like gross-out comedy, you would be better off with Adam Sandler's That's My Boy now showing on premium cable, for, as relentlessly gross as it is, it is not insulting and mean spirited and Sandler knows how to be funny.
Gettin' The Band Back Together continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday - Saturday 8 pm / Matinees.: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 2 pm through October 27, 2013, at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, N.J. 08901; Box Office: 732-246-7717; Online: www.GSPonline.org.
Gettin' The Band Back Together; Book by Ken Davenport and the Grundleshotz; Music and Lyrics by Mark Allen/ Additional Material by Sarah Saltzberg; Directed by John Rando