Producer Ken Davenport has racked up an impressive collection of Tony Award nominations (and a couple of wins) for shows like “Once on This Island,” “Kinky Boots,” and “Spring Awakening.” But co-writing the book (with improv comedy group the Grundleshotz) for “Gettin’ the Band Back Together,” a musical about a 40-year-old Jersey boy who realizes his dream of starting a rock ‘n’ roll band, was surely a singular labor of love. At a recent preview, Davenport actually got up on stage before the show to tell us so, getting a big laugh by sharing the information that his Barry Manilow high-school tribute band called itself “The Barely Manilows.”
The writer-producer’s affection comes through in the show, which opens, appropriately enough, with a song called “Jersey.” “Perfect beaches and snow-capped hills / It’s like New York but you can pay your bills,” sing the hard-working chorus boys and girls, amusingly clad in Emily Rebholz’s short, tight, tongue-in-seam costumes. Mark Allen, who wrote the utilitarian music, also penned the punchier lyrics, in which “Jersey” rhymes wittily with “mercy.”
Mitch Papadopoulos, played with appealing Everyman ordinariness by Mitchell Jarvis, finds himself out of his Wall Street job and with nowhere to go but back home to live with his mother in Sayreville, New Jersey. That shouldn’t be as hard to take as it sounds, because Sharon Papadopoulos is played by Marilu Henner (who makes her first entrance in a leotard) as a sexy lady with real spirit.
But back home is still back home, and Mitch is seriously depressed. Mom suggests that Mitch go back to his old job playing guitar at the Peterpank Diner, but his best friend, Bart Vickers (Jay Klaitz, a paradigm of salt-of-the-earth acting), has a better idea. He thinks that Mitch should get their old band back together.
“What kind of douchebag still plays with his high school garage band?” Mitch wants to know. Douchebags like Mitch and Bart, as it turns out.
Funny as it plays, that seminal moment throws off the pace by coming much too soon in the act. The rest of the old band — rounded out nicely by Sully Sullivan (Paul Whitty) and Robbie Patel (Manu Narayan) — comes together as if by magic. But it gives set designer Derek McLane his cue to throw open the Papadopoulos’s garage door to let the music out.
Before long, Mitch’s arch-enemy since grade school, Tygen Billows (sneering, strutting Brandon Williams) makes his showy appearance in one of many outré costumes. Although he brags about the success of his own band, Mouthfeel, which made the big time on a Trident commercial, Tygen challenges Mitch to go mano-a-mano at an upcoming Battle of the Bands.
Allowing himself to dream in “One of Those Guys,” Mitch fantasizes being one of the legendary boys of Asbury Park who made it out of Jersey and into the big time. But Mitch knows he’s no Springsteen, and he’s taking a big chance when he agrees to go up against Tygen’s band in a playoff for the title of Best Band in Western Eastern Central Middlesex Country.
Although simplistic by design, the script is funny without being hilarious, grooving along mainly on its many goofy throwaway lines. One nonsensical exchange reveals that Sharon once had a thing with Aerosmith’s renowned lead guitarist, Joe Perry, and was the inspiration for “Back in the Saddle.” “Oh, grow up,” Sharon scolds her scandalized son. “So, your mom was into S&M — so what?”
The title song, while musically not much to rock out on, performs the critical function of stitching together those scenes in which Mitch convinces the other members of his old band to tune up their instruments and come out of retirement as the Juggernaut Band. Every one of these over-the-hill musicians needs a bit of persuasion, but things seem to be shaping up until the guys realize that they’re missing one critical element — lead guitar.
The entire band doesn’t come together until the second act, but be sure to come back after intermission, because that’s when the Juggernauts finally find their lead guitarist — a skinny kid playing at an Orthodox Jewish wedding. The kid is named Ricky Bling and he’s played by a 16-year-old kid named Sawyer Nunes, who is flat-out sensational. Ricky’s showstopping audition piece is a rap version of “Hava Nagila,” played as you have never heard it played before — scorching hot and wicked good.
Nunes is no newcomer to Broadway; he was in the original companies of “Matilda” and “Finding Neverland.” But this is his breakout appearance, for sure. Laid back as only a teenager can be (“Who’s Aerosmith?” Ricky asks artlessly), Nunes delivers a cool performance and a killer musical turn, and runs away with the show.
Except, that is, for a deliciously droll appearance by a depressed lounge singer named Nick Styler and played tearfully by Ryan Duncan. His sobbing solo number, “Second Chances,” is full of grotesquely funny lyrics, like: “You left your crack pipe in the baby’s crib / But I still love you.” But even the simple love song that Bart sings about his feelings for Mitch’s mother, Sharon, yields juicy lyrics like: “Just last night / I was tied to your old bed / And the safe word went unsaid.”
Cheap laughs? You bet, but even cheap laughs count; and let’s admit it — it feels so good to laugh real laughs on Broadway.