Gettin’ the Band Back Together, the new musical by Mark Allen, Ken Davenport, The Grudleshotz and Sarah Satlzberg, doesn’t even pretend to generate suspense, with only a rather feeble rock star ex machina at the end providing something approaching a plot twist. The audience knows where the set-up is going and the creators are fully aware of this. They get pretty quickly to the point, occasionally making fun of their own embrace of predictable tropes along the way. Admittedly, suspense is rarely the forte of the Broadway musical and it is not this in itself that fails to generate the vitality that could elevate this reasonably entertaining musical into something with real resonance. A lot of the right components are there, but ultimately Getting the Band Back can’t escape a basic lack of purpose and emotional investment at its core.
Mitch Papadopoulos (Mitchell Jarvis) dreamed of being a rock star with his high school band, but made the sensible choice of becoming a stockbroker in New York. Fired on his 40th birthday, he moves back in with his mom in Sayreville, New Jersey. Within moments, he has reconnected with old buddy, who is now a terrible math teacher, Bart Vickers (Jay Klaitz), reignited his passion for high school sweetheart and all-round babe, Dani Franco (Kelli Barrett), and butted horns with former rival—and world-class ***hole, Tygen Billows (Brandon Williams).
The stakes are “raised” when it is revealed that Billows is now the real-estate mogul of Sayreville, and threatens foreclosure on both Mitch’s family home and Bart’s, unless Mitch can win The Battle of the Bands—a rematch of the competition Mitch’s band won twenty-five years ago. And so, Mitch and Bart round up Rummesh “Robbie” Patel (Manu Narayan) and Sully Sullivan (Paul Whitty), who have similarly traded their rock-star dreams for boringly conventional jobs and who both happen to be under the demoralizing thumb of a family member, and they set out to get the band back together.
The score, which generally sticks to Broadway’s version of rock, but also includes more classic musical numbers, and one surprisingly successful foray into hip hop (admirably executed by Sawyer Nunes), is passable with a few forgettable numbers, but also one or two stand-outs. The band led by Sonny Paladino is solid, and the cast generally pulls off the musical numbers with aplomb, as well as most of the comedy, with some, such as Jay Kleitz, proving themselves real comedic performers (in the vein of Seth Rogen).
What could set this musical apart is the creation process. The Grundleshotz is a group of performers and writers who developed the book through improvisation. One might expect material improvised from presumably diverse experiences to have more of an original spark to it, but the heart that makes many of us fall for certain Broadway musicals is missing from much of this one—as is the subtle social edge that often quietly underpins those same musicals.
The show tries to draw what it can out of the central idea that doing what you love is important—the sort of reductionist message to be found on many a fridge magnet or generic inspirational Facebook post. The supposed climax of the Battle of the Bands brings the Broadway spectacle, but otherwise becomes merely a necessary resolution of a major plot point.
Heart is not entirely lacking, but it is a case of too little, too late. The show is often strongest when it hews closest to a classic musical. Kelli Barrett’s solo Jersey mom is the updated descendant of the working class romantic heroines of the Golden Age and her torch song, “I just Want Real” is in the tradition of unabashed sentiment offset with touches of dry humor—a style to which her voice is particularly well-suited. Sully’s love song to fellow officer, Roxanne Velasco (Tamika Lawrence), “Life Without Parole” provides a rare moment of genuine empathy with the characters—it is both sweet and funny, thanks in no small part to the comedic chops and real chemistry between Lawrence and Whitty. While, however, comedic secondary love stories often come close to stealing the show (think Ado Annie and Will Parker), it is a bad sign if the single emotional high point is midway through the second act, and has little to do with the central drama at all.
The performers (a good proportion of whom are retained from the 2013 George Street Playhouse production) have both the musical and comedic chops necessary to this humor-driven musical. The exception, sadly, is Marilu Henner, who seems there solely for her celebrity power and is given a one-dimensional character.
Gettin’ the Band Back is indeed often more successful a series of comedic sketches than as a musical with any sense of a dramatic or emotional arc. But the show is also rather tone deaf politically. It wants to be edgier—or at least “irreverent”—but several ethnic jokes are both disturbingly regressive and profoundly unfunny. The character Rummesh, whose primary defining characteristic is simply that he is Indian is given a romantic narrative that is also tokenizing, while his father is pure stereotype.
I had to grit my feminist teeth too when, as the quartet of men recommit to the showdown, asking, “shall we do it?,” their female love interests chorus in reply “Only if we can help!” And while I get the joke in Dani’s daughter Billie fashioning her standard teenage rebellion as “making a statement,” I question the merit in undercutting the fact that some of the most powerful activist voices right now are coming from those only just approaching voting age.
Billie’s “I really do care” jacket is symptomatic of the musical’s problematic disjuncture between signaling contemporaneity and actual awareness. The show’s “edge” ultimately depends largely on sex references and a few f-bombs. Escapist entertainment is one thing, but to clearly situate the musical within the current social climate, while actively ignoring the real and immediate issues so lightly referenced and simultaneously reinforcing racist and sexist stereotypes verges into a more aggressive—albeit unintentional—silencing of progressive and minority voices.
Moments of comedy, a talented cast, and occasional high points in Gettin’ the Band Back will doubtless satisfy the desire for a moderately entertaining Broadway musical for some, but its lack of vital specificity and sense of real importance exposes a missed opportunity for a more truly nourishing new work.