Of course, no one expects a jukebox musical to be an exact historic recreation. But there are two things, in particular, about “My Very Own British Invasion” — currently making its world premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn — that are so wrong they make the usual suspension of disbelief impossible.
First thing: The British Invasion — a term used to describe the wave of British bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones who became hugely popular in the United States in the ’60s — was built on the electric guitar. On many numbers of this jukebox musical (including The Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” The Beatles’ “I Wanna Be Your Man” and Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild”), the band at the back of the stage, almost totally out of site, plays the music on the proper instruments while the actors at the front of the stage strum acoustic guitar. That’s right, acoustic guitars. That’s like watching an actor who is playing Beethoven pump an accordion.
Second thing: One of the main characters, Trip (Conor Ryan), dresses and acts more like the frontman of an ’80s hair-metal band — or Johnny Depp playing Capt. Jack Sparrow — than anyone who was part of the British Invasion dressed and acted. (According to the program, the play takes place from 1964 to 1966, which makes you wonder what a 1968 song like “Born to Be Wild” or The Zombies’ “Time of the Season” is doing there, but that’s another issue.)
Those who can get beyond such concerns — and the predictable boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-tries-to-get-girl-back plot — may enjoy “My Very Own British Invasion,” which is subtitled “A Musical Fable of Rock n’ Love,” a lot more than I did. Certainly, the crowd that was there on the night that I attended applauded long and hard. But I think even those who thoroughly enjoyed it would agree that book writer Rick Elice, part of the creative team behind “Jersey Boys,” doesn’t approach that level of inspiration here.
Among those in the audience that night was Peter Noone, the Herman’s Hermits frontman who is credited with the concept of the musical. The main character, Peter, is based on him (no other Herman’s Hermits member figures in the plot), and Johnny Amies, who plays the part, does a good job at conveying his wide-eyed innocence — and keeping a straight face while delivering material like the dated pop confection “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” and the novelty hit, “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am.”
Erika Olson is also perfectly fine as his love interest, Pamela, who looks and sings like an angel but is drawn to the dark side, in the form of both the hard-partying Trip, and drugs. The first act showstopper shows her separated from Peter on an American tour, sinking into the depths of a drug hell as she sings The Animals’ version of “The House of the Rising Sun.” Duetting with her is Kyle Taylor Parker as Geno, who serves as a sort of narrator; Parker is the musical’s most consistently electrifying performer.
Making the biggest impressions in supporting roles are John Sanders as Fallon, the slickly Mephistophelian manager who tries to keep Peter and Pamela apart (in order to please cash cow Trip) and Daniel Stewart Sherman as a trio of menacing characters (bouncer, roadie, drug dealer).
We’re told, at the beginning, that all the characters are patrons at a hip London nightclub, and are in fact acting out the parts of the musicians and others in the story (maybe that explains the acoustic guitars?). But it’s hard to tell whether this is supposed to apply to the whole evening or just parts of it.
One of the best moments comes via scenic designer David Rockwell, who comes up with a lightning-fast way to convert the play’s main set, the nightclub, into a church. And, of course, the songs are mostly great, and played and sung well enough to be entertaining in their own right. “I’m Into Something Good,” “I Only Want to Be With You,” “Go Now,” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” … you can’t ruin these songs, though Elice comes close with The Beatles’ “In My Life,” changing a word to give the song a different meaning. (I’ve written more on this issue here.)
Some things are sacred, and shouldn’t be messed with. And “My Very Own British Invasion” does so too frequently for its own good.
“My Very Own British Invasion” will be at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through March 3. Visit papermill.org.