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Gettin' the Band Back Together

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - August 13, 2018

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. Music direction, incidental music, and dance arrangements by Sonny Paladino. Choreographed by Chris Bailey. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Emily Rebholz. Lighting design by Ken Billington. Sound design by John Shivers. Hair, wig and makeup design by J. Jared Janas. Orchestrations by Doug Katsaros and Sonny Paladino. Vocal arrangements by Sonny Paladino and Mark Allen. Music Coordinator John Miller. Associate director Dan Barron. Associate choreographer Beth Crandall. Cast: Mitchell Jarvis, Jay Klaitz, Paul Whitty, Manu Narayan, Brandon Williams, Marilu Henner, Kelli Barrett, Garth Kravits, Tamika Lawrence, Becca K├Âtte, Sawyer Nunes, Noa Solorio, Ryan Duncan, Nehal Joshi, J. Elaine Marcos, Rob Marnell, Jasmin Richardson, Tad Wilson, Lindsey Brett Carothers, Scott Richard Foster, Jenny Hill, and Ian Ward.
Theatre: Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Manu Narayan, Jay Klaitz, Paul Whitty, Sawyer Nunes, and Mitchell Jarvis
Photo by Joan Marcus

You know what might be fun? How about a Broadway Battle of the Bands pitting the kids from School of Rock against the hapless middle-aged suburban Jersey guys in Gettin' the Band Back Together that opened tonight at the Belasco Theatre, a show that starts out slowly but builds into a surprisingly funny, big-hearted, and altogether appealing musical.

Odds are the savvy New York City kids would walk off with the trophy. But the sentimental favorites would surely be the older doofuses, who would like nothing better than the opportunity for a do-over to break out of the doldrums of their lives. At the head of the pack is 40-year-old Mitch Papadopoulos (Mitchell Jarvis). We meet him at the top of Act I just as he has lost his job as a Wall Street stockbroker. Out of work and broke, he is forced to return home to Sayreville, New Jersey and move back in with his mother, Sharon, (a vivacious Marilu Henner), a "carpe diem" kind of woman who would be equally at home on TV's "The Housewives of New Jersey" or "Cougar Town."

Once back in the land of Garden State Parkway Exit 124, Mitch's regrets start to pile up, not the least of which is a long-ago blown opportunity to be with his high school sweetheart, Dani (Kelli Barrett, equally vivacious, as are all the women in the show). It isn't long before Mitch begins to understand that the dark cloud hanging over him is one that is shared with his lifelong buddies: Bart Vickers (Jay Klaitz), Sully Sullivan (Paul Whitty), and Rummesh "Robbie" Patel (Manu Narayan). The others do have jobs, but they are miserable in them, none more so than Bart, a very unhappy high school math teacher whose daily routine is brightened only by stopping by Sharon's house for a bowl of Fruity Pebbles on his way to work.

Given all of this woeful malaise, it does take a while for much more to happen after the initial funny opening (happy birthday/you're fired!). Act I is top-heavy with exposition as it sets up the premise about a group of lumpish men who are struggling to find meaning in their unfulfilling lives. Sully, we learn, is a cop in a long line of police officers in his family; his real ambition lies elsewhere, but he is afraid of disappointing his dad. Robbie works as a dermatologist, not his career choice either. Still single like the others, he is about to enter into an arranged marriage set up by his parents simply because he has not been able to find someone on his own.

Kelli Barrett and Mitchell Jarvis
Photo by Joan Marcus

For the overall plot, think The Full Monty, but instead of an all-male striptease act as the much-needed ego and confidence booster, the guys do as the title suggests by re-forming their old high school garage band, the Juggernauts. At first Mitch has to push and prod his buddies into picking up their instruments, but their enthusiasm is ignited by the appearance of their old archenemy, Tygen Billows (Brandon Williams, buff, tough, and the show's comic and hiss-worthy villain). Tygen and his band, Mouthfeel, are still quite active in the region. When he gets wind of the revitalized Juggernauts, he challenges Mitch to take up an old grudge by competing in the Western Eastern Central Middlesex County Battle of the Bands. The stakes are high, since Tygen is also the mortgage holder for many of the homes in Sayreville, including Sharon's, and he is about to foreclose. To twist things further, he is also currently dating none other than Mitch's lost love, Dani.

Act I is pleasant enough as we meet the characters. The plot unfolds against a backdrop of a tuneful if not especially memorable rock-and-pop-inspired score by Mark Allen; "Broadway, finally!" It says in Allen's bio, which mentions his work as a composer for film, TV, and commercials. But wait for it, because after intermission the show bursts out of its easy pacing and gently amusing jokes to emerge like a butterfly from a cocoon into a full-fledged original Broadway musical comedy. Suddenly the jokes are laugh-out-loud funny, the performances are outsized, and the score is both clever and original, with one solid number after the other. The crazy fun begins at the very top of Act II, with an inspired rap version of "Hava Nagila" performed by the Juggernaut's one teenage member, Ricky Bling. He is played by 16-year-old Sawyer Nunes, who nearly steals the show with this number and raises the bar for the rest of the evening. Ricky has joined the group as a replacement for a deceased member, a guitarist who was so depressed after the band initially broke up "he joined a Meat Loaf tribute band" and died onstage "about nine-and-a-half minutes into Paradise by the Dashboard Light." Another musical highlight is a number called "Bart's Confession," in which we learn that it is not only Fruity Pebbles that draws Bart to Sharon's house every day.

By the time we get to the actual Battle of the Bands and the show's upbeat ending, we find we have had a great time against expectations based on a quiet start, a derivative plot, and a serious suspicion that the whole thing might just be a vanity project of the show's lead producer and lead book writer Ken Davenport, who worked on the script with a group of performers and writers known collectively as The Grundleshotz. Davenport, who has made himself very visible to the public through his use of social media, a blog, workshops, and an Off-Broadway theater, even appears onstage at the start to rev up the audience.

And yet, unexpectedly, it works. This is a highly entertaining show with a terrific cast, supported by a bright and colorful cartoon-looking set design by Derek McLane, great costumes (especially for the character of Tygen Billows and his band members) by Emily Rebholz, and the actual band conducted by Sonny Paladino. Director John Rando knows how to give an audience a fun time, having helmed such romps as Urinetown and The Toxic Avenger, and he reaches generously into his bag of tricks for this one.

Yes, I wish the first act were tighter, and yes, perhaps an Off Broadway house might have been a better venue for Gettin' the Band Back Together, but I left the Belasco with my spirits lifted and a smile on my face. Given the flood of meh jukebox musicals that have become the norm, how nice it is to see such a spirited original musical on Broadway.


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