It’s still one of vaudeville and burlesque’s most remembered routines.
Comic One: Did you hear about the big new contest? First prize is a week in Philadelphia.
Comic Two: And what’s second prize?
Comic One: TWO weeks in Philadelphia.
Somewhere along the line, the location of derision traveled up the turnpike from Philly to New Jersey. Even little orphan Annie was chagrined not just to learn that her “real” parents were Ralph and Shirley Mudge, but that she’d also be living in “Gee … New Jersey.”
ANNIE opened more than four decades ago, but it was hardly the first musical to smear the Garden State. Patient Zero may have been ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, which will soon celebrate its 75th anniversary. Ogden Nash, the brilliant wordsmith, wrote “Way Out West in Jersey,” a song that wasn’t vicious, mind you, but did the state no favors.
GETTIN’ THE BAND BACK TOGETHER takes place in Time: Now and has a rock sound, but it isn’t above using the hoary convention of Jersey jokes.
One reason is that it’s set in Sayreville, NJ, only 65 minutes from Broadway. Sayreville itself is listed as one of the show’s producers. This suggests that the town fathers believe that ol’ axiom that no publicity is bad publicity. One of Mark Allen’s lyrics insists that residing in Jersey “is better than living on the street.” One can read a double meaning in the line that “it’s a hell of a place to call home.”
GETTIN’ doesn’t ever glorify the town that in real life actually sports a welcoming sign that says “Succeed in Sayreville.” Maybe this musical could succeed there, but it won’t on Broadway.
Fortysomething Mitch Papadopolous (the effective Mitchell Jarvis) has lost his Wall Street job, so now it’s time to live with Sharon – his mother (a game Marilu Henner). With prodding from his lifelong pal Bart Vickers (the competent Jay Klaitz), Mitch decides to reunite his old high school band.
Tygen Billows (a villainously amusing Brandon Williams) is glad to hear it. Tygen lost a Battle of the Bands and a trophy to Mitch’s group soon after they were graduated from Sayreville High.
Since then, Tygen has become a big fish real estate owner in this small town. In fact, he’s about to foreclose on financially delinquent Sharon and Mitch.
However, Tygen may not foreclose if Mitch’s regroup competes in an upcoming Battle of the Bands. Should Tygen win, Mitch must hand over that trophy from yesteryear and the homes will revert to him; if Mitch wins, the houses stay with Sharon and Bart.
Really? A real estate magnate would make such a deal? And he’s still smarting over losing a $1.98 trophy more than two decades earlier?
Sure, there’s something appealing about trying to recapture one’s youth. Here, though, virtually every character is immature, suggesting that nobody ever grows up in New Jersey.
Mitch and Bart are still replicating the lightsaber battles they had when the former played Luke and the latter portrayed Han. Bart still relishes Fruity Pebbles, Fluffernutters and Rice Krispie Treats. At forty?
On another immature front, Mitch and former girlfriend Dani (a does-the-job Kelli Barrett) reminisce on “The Best Day of Our Lives.” And what made it so? They went on their high school graduation trip to Six Flags.
The best musicals have big characters and big events; JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is an excellent example. Nostalgia aside, if you’re approaching your 25th high school reunion and the best you’ve got to show for it is a few rides on the Log Flume and the Giant Wheel, my, you’re in trouble (and not worthy of our attention). But here are Mitch and Dani each insisting “I SWEAR it was the best day.”
Well, maybe it was, considering that Mitch is out of work and Dani now toils as a waitress. That gets us into a diner where she works so we can witness a brawl that’s as inevitable as the ones we used to see in virtually every Elvis movie.
Another group of a different kind is mocked, too, thanks to Bart, who says “I’m a New Jersey teacher, for crap’s sake. What do I know?” The point is made more than once that Bart is incompetent at his subject, suggesting that the state hires any warm body to teach its children. What an insult.
And of course Bart is played by an overweight man as well as a clueless one. Klaitz boogies his way around the stage so we can laugh at someone who thinks he’s with it and sexy. As if all that isn’t enough, costume designer Emily Rebholz puts Klaitz in clothes that make him look heavier.
Many critics have already noted that the show owes a debt to THE FULL MONTY, which also has a scene where men audition to be part of a group. Yes, but MONTY showed men who were out to do something daringly different when they performed. Will they or won’t they bare all?
Mitch’s group comes across as just another unoriginal whose ambitions are as modest as a so-called tribute band – one whose band they’re aping wouldn’t be remotely flattered by the results.
All the rock tropes are here: the drummer seated in back; the panties thrown from the audience; the haze and fog; the slapping of hands of everyone in the front row; the musicians’ jumping up and down in place; the lifting of the frontman by four audience members who carry him off.
Then there’s the band member who comes to the front of the stage, lifts his hands high above his head, claps them in rhythm and gives theatergoers a curt nod that says they must join in and clap along, too.
This practice wasn’t ever an ingredient during the Golden Age of Broadway musicals. When people started applauding to the beat of “76 Trombones” on the opening night of THE MUSIC MAN in 1957, their atypical response was mentioned in some (rave) reviews. Believe me, during the number, Robert Preston did NOT come to the front of the stage, lift his hands high above his head, clap them in rhythm and give first-nighters a curt nod that said they were to join in. Those in that audience who did it were genuinely moved enough to show their enthusiasm and appreciation.
Incidentally, THE MUSIC MAN is not irrelevant to this musical; when matters get tough, Sully, who’s Mitch’s drummer, says “We’re in deep Shipoopi.” Paul Whitty plays the role adequately, although near the end of the first act he twirls a drumstick between two fingers that makes him a miniature version of a championship baton twirler. Watch for it.
Finally, there’s the ultimate rock-group cliché: the lead guitarist who always looks as if he’s struggling to play that next note and next chord. Mitch, like so many before him, grips the neck of the guitar and winces in agony while he seemingly tries to conquer the instrument. His face resembles someone who’s been constipated for days and just can’t get out that bowel movement.
In contrast, Broadway musicals used to make performing look easy; that was part of their charm and professionalism.
Three times during the evening – before the musical officially begins, at the start of the second act and near the end of the show – theatergoers are asked to respond to a question; after they respond, the question-asker claims he “can’t hear you” or “You can do better than that.” So the crowd must answer the same question, only louder. You’ll also hear the tired emcee lines of “Put your hands together for” and “Give it up for.” Nothing is missed — except something original.
No, that’s not fair. One scene in the second act involves an “in-one,” as the practice is known. This occurs after a curtain or scrim comes down at the end of a scene. During the long-lost Golden Age of Broadway musicals, a new scene was then played in front of the scrim all to hide that the fact that scenery was undergoing change behind it.
Here the scrim is painted as the front page of Sayrevillescoop.com. Many a story is there, but look closely at the upper left hand corner and you’ll see the story: “In-one transitions are back in fashion on Broadway. Once thought to be a crutch to solve difficult scene changes, the in-one transition is back.”
And indeed it is, right then and there — not that there is, as they say, anything wrong with that.
John Rando’s a smart director, so why didn’t he notice an egregious gaffe? Tygen is having his back waxed to have excess hair removed. We see him moan in pain after a strip has been quickly ripped off and is displayed full of hair. Seconds later, Brandon Williams stands, turns around and reveals that his entire back looks as if it never had a hair grow on it. Good Lord, if you cast such an actor, at least have the cosmetologist say when yanking off the strip “That’s the last one, Mr. Billows.”
True, we care (or are supposed to) that Sharon and Bart won’t lose their houses, but from the lack of gravitas in the script, we know they won’t. There’s low comedy at every turn in the book that Davenport and his committee of writers (known as The Grundleshotz) have created.
Mark Allen’s music doesn’t sound any more or less distinctive than the average (or sub-average) contemporary musical. His lyrics offer a bit of incisiveness, but the score won’t make much of a cast album. Would that each Battle of the Bands be a genuine war in which every group kills each other and leaves us all in musical peace.
In the end, however, GETTIN’ THE BAND BACK TOGETHER makes certain that everyone enjoys a happy ending. So maybe the show believes that New Jersey is a great place to live and not a joke.
By the way, the smash-hit musical BE MORE CHILL takes place in “Suburban New Jersey.” Does it too make Jersey jokes? Tune in next Monday …