A world-premiere rock musical set in Sayreville, New Jersey and produced in New Brunswick, twenty minutes from its setting? With a title as clichéd as Gettin’ The Band Back Together? Can this possibly make for a good evening of theater? As it turns out: yes, it most certainly can.
There is little about this show that sounds compelling, but musicals exist most fully on the stage, where any number of strange concepts can come together to make something wonderful. And in performance, Gettin’ The Band Back Together comes alive into an evening of pure, unadulterated fun. Utterly self-aware of how it embraces familiar tropes and tired clichés, Gettin’ The Band Back Together dives eagerly into a river of cheese without pretense or apology.
The result is a hilarious evening filled with the sort of soaring choruses and sappy power ballads that saturated FM drive time playlists twenty-five years ago: you know, the kind of songs we all pretend to have grown out of. That same sort of dishonesty might tell us that we’re too intellectually or aesthetically discriminating for a silly rock musical, but such pretense should be discarded as quickly as the sleeves on a 1989 Poison tee shirt. Gettin’ The Back Together promises little other than laughs and great fun, but it delivers on that promise fully.
Tapping into current economic angst, the show opens on Wall Street, where Mitch Martino (Mitchell Jarvis) has just celebrated his fortieth birthday by losing his job as an investment banker. The crisis forces Mitch to move home to his mom’s house in Sayreville, sparking an energetic opening number, “Jersey!,” an ode to all things Garden State like full-serve gas stations and orange tans. It turns out that Mitch lead a high school band called Juggernaut, and his return to town infuriates his rival that never left, Tygen (Brandon Williams), leader of the band Mouth Feel. Mouth Feel has won the local Battle of the Bands competition (where they crown “the best band in western-eastern-central Middlesex County) every year it has competed except one: the first year, when Juggernaut beat them. And Tygen has not let the memory of that defeat fade.
Now a local real-estate tycoon, Tygen sees the opportunity to exert his revenge on Mitch and his best bud and former bass play Bart by foreclosing on their parents’ houses. Mitch and Bart don’t have the money to save their parents from default, but they do have that first battle of the band trophy and the bragging rights of defeating Mouth Feel, and so they convince Tygen to hold off for—say it with me—one last show. Juggernaut will reunite for the battle of the bands to give Tygen and Mouth Feel a shot at redemption and the only trophy missing from his collection, as long as Tygen agrees to reverse the foreclosures should Juggernaut win. A showdown for all the marbles lies on the horizon.
Of course we know this plot line well enough by now: it was The Mighty Ducks, and before that it was The Karate Kid, and most recently it was Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. For these movies and myriad others, the formula is simple: the ragtag group of folks with little money and less self-esteem band together against all odds to battle the entitled jerks with wealth, good looks, super-sized egos, and an utter lack of empathy or self-awareness. But whatever points the creators of Gettin’ The Band Back Together surrender for recycling a familiar plot line, they more than make up by overstuffing that plot with unabashed, full-tilt hilarity. It is not quite accurate to say that the show engages the familiar plot in order to parody it; rather, Gettin’ The Band Back Together engulfs itself completely in the tropes and character types of this plot—from the rich and sinister antagonist, to the chubby best friend, to the beautiful girl caught in the middle—in order to celebrate them to their fullest. Like a bar band blasting its way triumphantly through “Johnny B. Goode,” this show grabs hold of a tried and true form and rides it to wonderful heights.
Jarvis does an excellent and dutiful job as the straight man in the show’s lead, but the best performances come from the goofballs swirling around him upon his return to Jersey. Williams’s Tygen is fantastic: the character is as smug as he is mean spirited, but Williams makes him a joy of a heel. Tygen has no idea how ridiculous he is, but Williams certainly does, and so he gives us ample opportunity to laugh satisfying at this character he crafts into the embodiment of pompousness.
Jay Klaitz’s Bart is another highlight. Bart is at the opposite extreme of confidence: overweight, living in his parents’ basement, and teaching math—a subject he has never quite mastered himself—at the local high school, he has few goals in life and less interest in pursuing them. Not only does Klaitz eagerly embrace Bart’s juvenilely hilarious sense of humor and his lovable-loser aesthetic, but he also locates in Bart the energetic eagerness of living for the moment. His life seems to be going nowhere, so Bart is up for a change of pace at a moment’s notice, and it is in this quality that Klaitz has the most fun with Bart. And as an added bonus, Klaitz gets the show’s best song, “Bart’s Confession,” a number the gets more and more uproarious as it rolls on.
Aside from “The First Gig,” a great number inspired by Ill Communication era Beastie Boys, rapped impressively by Evan Daves, the show’s music is poppy and catchy, more in the service of the plot and its humor than music that could stand on its own. But again, Gettin’ The Band Back Together reveals itself aware of and entirely comfortable with itself and its confines. “Kenny’s Hymn” is an overly-emotional power ballad about how a dead friend deserves better than an overly-emotional power ballad, and “Heavy Petting” glories in its subject as Mitch and ex-girlfriend Dani (Michelle Duffy) reminisce about their awkwardly youthful sexual encounters in the utter earnestness of a rock love song. Mouth Feel’s contribution to the climactic battle of the bands is as hilarious in its lyrics and choreography as it is in its parody of late-eighties arena-rock (fitting for a band that did once tour the tri-state area opening for Ratt, after all). Performing parody songs or not, the show’s rock & roll orchestra is impressively spot-on throughout the show.
It is difficult to assess whether this show would be such a success outside of home environs. George Street’s promotional material calls it the “New Jerseyest musical of the year” (much of course is made of Springsteen and Bon Jovi—“I swear to Sambora!”—but the poster for South Side Johnny and the Asbury Jukes earns the show extra Jersey street cred). My suspicion is that the show would (and will) travel well: local references are extra fun for the George Street crowd, but at the heart of Gettin’ The Band Back Together is the universal qualities of hilarity and fun. Maybe audiences elsewhere won’t notice that Stone Pony sticker, but everybody can revel in a night of glorious cheese.