We called ourselves Just Us – the Port Washington, Long Island band I played rhythm guitar with in the mid-60s. We three guys and a girl poured our hearts and souls into Just Us. We were not drug-addled head-bangers, although we were known occasionally to sneak a drag on an Old Gold in the yard behind the house where we practiced, and where our lead guitarist’s comely mom, who barely seemed older than we were, brought us sodas and homemade cookies. Our first paying gig was at a Jewish Community Center in Queens, for an après-ski event dubbed the Sitzmark Shuffle.
At the request of the organizer, we agreed to add “Sweet Lorraine” and “More (Theme from Mondo Cane)” to our setlist. I was particularly pleased about the latter, as I was chosen to take the lead on that one, possibly because our charismatic lead guitarist was beginning to evolve, um, taste. For reasons I couldn’t understand (and despite credible rumors to the contrary later traced to the Men’s Club of the Community Synagogue), a major-label signing eluded us. As did a second paying gig. End of story.
If that, or something similar, had been the end of the story for Juggernaut, the New Jersey bar band reconstituted after two decades in Gettin’ the Band Back Together – had Juggernaut remained a cherished memory in the hearts of these Jersey boys – dayenu. It would have been enough. Instead, they’re the subject of a musical that starts out generically silly, a Raymour & Flanigan commodity packed with show-biz wares that look familiar but, on further examination, just miss. But then it slides inexorably into a User’s Guide to Social Offenses. More sympathetic types will describe the show as satire, especially given the bona fides of director John Rando (Urinetown). Trust me, Gettin’ the Band Back Together is not satire.
The show opens with mild promise. Outside his New York cubicle, Mitch Papadopoulus (charmless Mitchell Jarvus) gets a 40th-birthday cupcake and, seconds later, a pink slip. Reluctantly, he moves back in with Mom (Marilu Henner, really working it) in Sayreville, New Jersey. (Even more disconcerting than Henner is a desperate housewife in a show that should have gone straight to the dinner-theater circuit, is that Sayreville, New Jersey is listed above the title as a producer of Gettin’ the Band Back Together.)
In Sayreville (represented in Derek McLane’s likable comic-strip sets in the style of Charles Schultz), depressed Mitch encounters sleek chiseled women doing pelvic thrusts in designer duds and men unhappy in their jobs, among them his former Juggernaut bandmates: Bart (Jay Klaitz, in the Josh Gad role); a slothful high school math teacher (sample joke: “You were terrible at math.” “I still am”); Sully (Paul Whitty, a straight arrow), a reluctant cop; and Robbie (Manu Narayan, sympathetic), following in his father’s footsteps as a society dermatologist and contemplating an arranged marriage to a woman he has yet to meet.
Mitch also runs into his arch nemesis, Tygen Billows (Brandon Williams, at least he’s having a good time), leader of Mouthfeel, which back in the day lost to Juggernaut in a battle of the bands. Still hellbent on a rematch with Juggernaut, Tygen can make his nipples bounce like jumping beans. He owns most of the real estate in Sayreville, including Mitch’s mom’s house, and she’s three months behind on the mortgage payment. So a showdown is arranged, and if you can’t guess what the stakes are, there’s a bridge across the Hudson I’d like to sell you.
Juggernaut’s original lead guitarist is out of the picture, meaning the guys have to audition everyone in town (and I mean everyone – the unfunny scene goes on forever) before settling on a 16-year-old prodigy who plays like Prince, wears his gimme cap backwards and calls himself Ricky Bling (Sawyer Nunes).
All of this is set up in Act I. It’s innocuous and amusing in a sledgehammer sort of way. Act II opens with Juggernaut playing at an Orthodox Jewish wedding that springs to life when Ricky lets loose with a rap version of “Hava Nagilah.” Soon enough, all those observant Jews are shaking their tuchuses and twirling their sidelocks. Then Bart reveals he’s sleeping with Mitch’s mom (who, just minutes earlier at intermission, was prowling the aisles and tossing Rice Krispies squares to the audience), ticking off the intimate details in the number “I’m Sleeping with Your Mom.”
Speaking of ticking off, it was around this time that I began ticking off the number of clichés and stereotypes being thrown (along with the t-shirt cannon, did I mention that?) at us by the book writers (producer Davenport and a comedy group called The Grundleshotz with additional material by Sarah Saltzberg) and composer/lyricist Mark Allen. The show grows increasingly desperate and reactionary (guess what? Ricky Bling is not what he appears to be!). With nowhere to go and a long time to get there before the inevitable showdown between Juggernaut and Mouthfeel, the plot sinks lower and lower into audience pandering.
Gettin’ the Band Back Together will remind you, at different moments, of The Wedding Singer (the stage adaptation of which Rando also directed), Rock of Ages, School of Rock and the Kars4Kids commercial, all of which look like Mozart’s Requiem by comparison. Accept any substitute.