Not unlike the garage band it portrays, “The Black Suits” is rough around the edges but offers considerable charms. The new musical from Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel Award nominee Joe Iconis (“Smash”) would benefit from more script development and some judicious trimming of numbers, but strong performances and an appealing setup suggest the show could have a healthy future. If nothing else, it should prove popular at high schools and colleges, where young actors will get to act their age.
The plot is simple. Four Long Island teenagers live out their rock star dreams in the garage, having never actually performed in front of an audience. The book, by Iconis and Robert Emmett Maddock, quickly delineates each character and his issues: Lead singer Chris (Coby Getzug) is determined to break out of his small town, and suffers from an “anxiety disorder” that is either very serious or simple teen angst, depending on what’s convenient to the scene.
His best friend and guitarist John (Jimmy Brewer) has spent a year at Merchant Marine Academy and nurses a crush on Chris’ girlfriend Lisa (Veronica Dunne). Drummer Brandon (Harrison Chad) is the unappreciated one, teased for his weight (even though Chad is stocky at best). And bass player Nato (Will Roland) is the comic relief sidekick, obsessed with genitalia and his “spirit animal,” a ceramic frog named Mr. Pee Pee.
Led by Chris’ unfounded optimism, the group agrees to enter the St. Anne’s Battle of the Bands — an intimidating idea since it is, in Brandon’s words, “something that real bands do.” But with the support of Chris’ neighbor and mentor, Mrs. Werring (Annie Golden in a crowdpleasing perf) — a pot-smoking former rocker with stories about her glory days with David Bowie and Mick Jagger — they give it a shot.
It’s all a setup for Iconis’ musical numbers, which, as in the standout opener “Rock ’n’ Roll Band,” largely manage to sound like something a garage band would really play while also being catchy and theatrically engaging. “Rather Be,” in which bandmembers go through their mundane lives while wishing they were at band practice, also brings a good sense of fun to the proceedings.
There are a few too many songs, and at times the score overtips into repetition, particularly in Chris’ soundalike solos. But the night’s most unnecessary song might also be its most entertaining — a silly number called “Amphibian” that showcases the underdeveloped characters of Brandon and Nato.
The plot follows a predictable course, agreeable as it is. We know the best friends will fall out over the girl; we know the well-intentioned neighbor isn’t as connected as she seems; we know Chris’ problems with his absent father and his mental condition feel conveniently swept aside. Still, it’s all held together by a relatable performance by Getzug, who uses a strong voice and crackerjack comic timing to make Chris more likable and sympathetic.
He’s given great support by Dunne, who tackles what could have been a thankless Yoko role to make Lisa appealingly wise beyond her 16 years. And though his vocal chops might not match the others in the cast, Brewer has a charismatic way with a character who isn’t given much consistency in the script.
Director John Simpkins draws excellent performances out of his winning ensemble, all of whom refreshingly look like actual teenagers. Tech credits are solid across the board.
Although Iconis has been working on “The Black Suits” for several years, the show still feels undeveloped. But honed with more consistent characterization and faster pacing, “The Black Suits” could really rock.