A well-worn “Mickey and Judy” tuner plot is updated to the ’80s in “The Next Big Thing: A Garage Band Musical,” spotlighting the callow machinations of songwriter wannabe Chip (Brandon Ruckdashel) and wide-eyed thrush Kim (Matisha Baldwin), who are striving for the gig that will take them to the top. The noteworthy tunes of Missy Gibson and Mike Flanagan of the indie band Breech far outdistance Jim Favre’s heavy-handed book and the woefully undernourished onstage and pre-recorded instrumental backing. Fortunately, helmers Favre and Rachel Maize are blessed with an outstanding ensemble, instilling a winning veracity into the often-meandering proceedings.
Beginning in 1983 Chicago, the main thematic throughline follows Chip from his post-high school efforts to form a garage band with geekish no-talent pals Mickey (Mike Thompson) and Robert (Jason Director), through his evolution as an artist and human being. Acting as a disapproving conscious to Chip’s creative soul is his mother Melissa (co-composer/lyricist Gibson), a rock ‘n’ roll prodigy of the ’60s who was trampled on by the music industry.
As plot fodder, the ongoing Chip/Melissa angst wears thin, but it does offer noteworthy song setups. Ruckdashel’s pure tenor unites quite well with Gibson’s dusky contralto.
On solo turns, Ruckdashel’s Chip is properly boyish as he attempts to educate his non-musical pals (“Give Them Something”) and exudes an endearing romanticism in duets with Kim (“The Rain Song,” “Without You”). Melissa’s relentless negativity permeates every aspect of Gibson’s musical output.
Favre incorporates a sliver of “A Star Is Born” action, following vocally transcendent Kim as she rises from Chip’s band to ’80s stardom only to descend to opening act in the 1990s. Baldwin is the real deal, providing a sumptuous musicality to such melodically and rhythmically varied tunes as “My Little Spell,” “Sharpshooter” and “You Belong With Me.”
Lesbian pal Mary Lou, played with refreshing irreverence by Ellen D. Williams, provides much-needed counterbalance to Melissa’s relentless surliness. Williams also soars through two of the best songs in the show, the reprimanding “It’s Not Your Life” and the hauntingly wistful “Because of You.”
Director and Thompson are wholesomely clueless as Chip’s bandmates. The instrumental combo of Ruckdashel (keyboard), Director (guitar) and Thompson (electric drum pad) scores a D-minus on the garage band rating chart. They are no better at the end of act two than they were at the beginning of act one. There is no credibility to the supposed evolution of this ensemble to rock band superstardom. And the pre-recorded backup soundtracks are sketchy at best.