NEW YORK — Note to non-New Jerseyans who will be attending “Gettin’ the Band Back Together,” a musical that made its Broadway debut last week at the Belasco Theatre: The Hunka Bunka Ballroom, which is mentioned in the dialogue, may sound made up, but was a real place, a large Sayreville nightclub that morphed into the Starland Ballroom in 2003.
The Starland Ballroom gets a namecheck, too, as do, in the course of the evening, Jon Bon Jovi, The Star-Ledger, The Paper Mill Playhouse, Six Flags Great Adventure and so on.
The book writers (Ken Davenport and the Grundleshotz collective) and songwriter Mark Allen obviously felt it was important to establish a strong sense of place. They even open the musical with a song, “Jersey” (see video below), about the setting of the show’s action, describing the state as a place “where the people are tan/And every woman and man has a funky, expressive style/Look out from any flat and you can see Manhattan/But it doesn’t really turn our heads.”
As a New Jerseyan, I was a bit taken aback by the Snooki-inspired stereotyping of the first two lines, and the ridiculousness of the idea that you can see Manhattan from “any flat” in the state. I mean, come on. And this is not atypical for this musical: MTV’s “Jersey Shore” seems to be a big influence throughout, nothing is particularly believable, and the one character who attempts an exaggerated Jersey accent sounds like she comes from Brooklyn.
But despite these flaws, I was still impressed by the production’s buoyant, almost manic energy, and laughed at many of the jokes. “Gettin’ the Band Back Together” may not be an artistic triumph, but it’s a lot of fun, and I’d recommend it to all but the haughtiest theater snobs.
The musical, which was first produced at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick in 2013, is about Mitch (Mitchell Jarvis), who has just lost his job as a New York stockbroker and is forced, at 40, to move back to Sayreville to live with his widowed but still eternally cheerful (and improbably young-looking) mother, Sharon (Marilu Henner). There, he runs into some old high school friends with whom he once had a band called Juggernaut, as well as his high school girlfriend, Dani (Kelli Barrett), and Tygen (Brandon Williams), the snarling leader of another band that used to be Juggernaut’s rival.
Tygen still holds a grudge against Juggernaut for beating his band, Mouthfeel, in a their high school battle of the bands. Tygen also happens to be dating Dani; they both stuck around Sayreville while Mitch attempted to move on, in New York.
Tygen is now a real estate magnate, and Sharon’s landlord; Sharon’s money is running low, as is Mitch’s. And so Tygen, still absurdly desperate to avenge his band’s crushing loss, orchestrates another battle-of-the-bands faceoff with Juggernaut, even though Mitch is understandably reluctant to get the rusty Juggernaut back together.
But he does, and they agree to this: If Juggernaut, wins, Sharon gets to keep her house, but if Mouthfeel emerges victorious, they will finally possess that old trophy.
Pretty silly stuff, of course. But Williams is still hilarious as the dense metalhead Tygen — imagine Alice Cooper, if Cooper wasn’t in on the joke — and Jay Klaitz, who plays Juggernaut bassist Bart, has a wonderfully over-the-top (and surprisingly raunchy) second-act spotlight number, “Bart’s Confession.” In a cute running joke, Tygen’s glowering bandmate Ritchie (Garth Kravits) is forever spouting sayings that fall humorously flat.
Unfortunately, Mitch is a thoroughly bland leading character, and there really isn’t enough plot. The first act is mainly about getting the band back together (which we know is going to happen before we even sit down), and the second act is all lead-up to the big battle-of-the-bands showdown. And so the musical is crammed with other stuff, most of it inconsequential: There’s a scene of Juggernaut playing at a bar mitzvah, and some reminiscing by Mitch and Dani, and a lounge-music parody.
Also, all five members of Juggernaut get their own love stories. That’s really too much for any of them to have much depth.
But it’s obviously not depth that the makers of “Gettin’ the Band Back Together” are going for. And as long as you’re not expecting depth, I think you’ll enjoy it.
“Gettin’ the Band Back Together” is playing at the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., New York. Most weeks, shows are scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Visit gettinthebandbacktogether.com.