Regional Reviews: New Jersey
My Very Own British Invasion
The setting is the pub-like Bag O'Nails Club in Soho, London, where young 1960s-styled young adults, ranging from stylish and hip to working class, are gathered to energetically dance and respond to the invigorating, home grown version of rock 'n' roll played by musicians of their own generation. There is something ethereal in the set-up here. Although the story they are about to perform for us occurs between 1964 and 1966, the Bag O'Nails and its nostalgic denizens appear to have been frozen in that time, with the latter perpetually reliving their spirited immersion in the birth era of British rock.
While it is often in the foreground, the background of My Very Own British Invasion is the peaceful and joyful conquest of America by young Brit musicians who revised and revitalized rock 'n' roll in America. Near the top, the club's band front man (modeled after real life American singer Geno Washington) designates four clubbers to portray the Beatles, and there follows a series of scenes depicting highlights of the Beatles' first American tour along with their appearances on the Ed Sullivan TV variety show.
There is an oft-told, yet involving and poignant, ill-fated, love triangle which stretches across the Atlantic from London to cities throughout the United States. A very young and soft-hearted version of Peter Noone (the musical is "based on an idea" by Noone) and the already successful, selfish and demanding hard rocker Trip are rivals for Pamela, also an emerging singer. She is willful, experienced and promiscuous (a trait which garners approving applause when she tells Trip, "You have me. You just don't have me exclusively...," adding to both suiters, "What I am, I'm a William Blake poem. As in 'No bird flies too high if she flies with her own wings.' So let me fly, both of you." Pamela's heart leans toward Peter, who unlike Trip, truly wants to devote his life to her, but she cannot resist her visceral passion for the strong sexuality of Trip.
Rick Elice's book and Jerry Mitchell's expert direction find an extraordinary balance and seamlessness between the incident-filled book and the extensive in-performance musical numbers which often either advance or complement the story being told. This format, as well as having a plethora of music from so many different writers to draw upon, has likely helped in enabling them to avoid the pitfall of having to shoehorn in songs with ill-fitting lyrics. Most of the twenty-six songs are actually from or very close to being from the very years depicted.
Jonny Amies, a young English actor making his American stage debut, employs a great deal of charm and musical assurance, which enables him to hold center stage along with Erika Olson (as Peter and Pamela should) in a production that is filled with a considerable number of excellent performances. Although Elice's book tends to re-enforce the dismissive view commonly held of the "bubble gum" music of Noone and his Herman's Hermits, most audiences (yours truly included) will find Amies' performances of their "There's a Kind of Hush (All Over the World)," "I'm Into Something Good," and several additional Hermits songs delightful. (By the way, now, more than 50 years later, Noone is still touring and cannily delighting participating audiences with the verse after verse, same as the first, "Henry the Eighth, I Am". You'll hear it here.)
Olson shines in the difficult role of the many faceted Pamela. She convincingly conveys complex, deeply conflicted emotions. Additionally, Olson's musical performance is strong and assured. Her vocals include "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" (Gerry and the Pacemakers) and, along with Amies, "I Only Want to Be with You" (Dusty Springfield).
Conor Ryan skillfully limns the self-absorbed, childishly demanding Trip without going over the top, and strongly delivers his hard-driving musical numbers. Included among them are "Can't You See That's She's Mine" (Dave Clark Five) and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" (The Animals).
Kyle Taylor Parker as band front man Geno strongly and stylishly is the lead singer for several of the liveliest musical numbers. Parker sends thrills and chills through the house with his powerful and emotional rendition of "House of the Rising Sun" (The Animals).
In their principal roles, John Sanders as Fallon, an unscrupulous manager/promotor, and Daniel Stewart Sherman as his muscle man "The Hammer" turn in vivid, colorful portrayals. Bryan Fenkart smoothly portrays a very likeable John Lennon. Jen Perry brings warmth to the role of Peter's Mum. Trista Dollison's strong vocals stand out throughout the proceedings.
Despite its successes, My Very Own British Invasion is still a work in progress. For example, a series of jokes relating to supposed British gangster slang which are more annoying than funny should, at the very least, be cut back. I do not feel that the motivation for the crucial decision made by a central character is made clear.
Director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell, scenic designer David Rockwell, projection designer Andrew Lazarow and lighting designer Kenneth Posner and the entire creative team have coordinated their efforts so closely that the success of the artistic work of each one enhances that of each of the others.
David Rockwell's large and complex, multi-level, partially moveable set is fluid, inobtrusive, and provides multiple performance areas (some large and open) which enable swift transitions and diverse staging configurations. The set and lighting design provide multiple and diversely positioned backgrounds for the employment of enveloping projections which transport us to the varied locations where events transpire without our ever leaving the Bag O'Nails.
One dazzling projection provides a startling jolt of harsh brightness and vivid coloration which, in collaboration with the events being played out on stage, viscerally conveys to the senses that one is experiencing the result of a drug hit. Furthermore, the mobility of the set allows for differing configurations and perspectives in viewing Mitchell's lively choreography. This viewer was particularly taken with the dance number, which very delightfully employed a trampoline.
My Very Own British Invasion, which does not seek to break any new ground, is as insightful, intelligent and entertaining a show as one could hope for in a jukebox musical. And it is likely to be very, very popular.
My Very Own British Invasion continues performances 1hrough March 3, 2019, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn NJ. Evenings: Wednesday and Thursday 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 8 p.m.; Sunday 7 p.m./ Matinees: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 pm. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.