“Gettin’ the Band Back Together” had me waxing nostalgic for the glory days of the 1970s. Broadway gave us “A Chorus Line” and “Chicago” and more than a few musical classics by Stephen Sondheim. What’s often forgotten, though, is that the 1970s was also the golden age of the Vanity Musical, a show bankrolled for under a million bucks that typically closed the same week it opened.
Publicists back then weren’t so sophisticated at papering a house, and it was standard practice among many enterprising young theatergoers to mention a cast member’s name to the box office — “Joe Blow left me two tickets” — and see any of these Vanity Musicals for free.
It is how my friends and I saw such Joe Allen keepers as “Rockabye Hamlet,” “Platinum,” “Angel,” and “Doctor Jazz,” as well as the ultimate Vanity Musical, “Got Tu Go Disco.”
The new musical “Gettin’ the Band Back Together” opened Monday at the Belasco Theatre, and it does “Disco” one better. Ken Davenport, the show’s lead producer and book writer, treated preview audiences to a pre-curtain pep talk that detailed the show’s genesis and journey to Broadway. He set the stage perfectly for the very personal, modest, homegrown effort that is “Band.”
In “A Chorus Line” kind of way, Davenport shares the book-writing credit with The Grundleshotz, a group of performers and writers who, as reported in the Playbill, “helped develop ‘Gettin’ the Band Back Together’ through a series of improvisational rehearsals.” Sarah Saltzberg receives special credit for “additional material.”
Here’s the story that far too many chefs have cooked up: An out-of-work financial analyst (Mitchell Jarvis, convincingly ordinary) returns home to live with his New Jersey mother (Marilu Henner, notably thin) only to reunite with some old high school buddies (Jay Klaitz, Manu Narayan, Paul Whitty) to resuscitate their garage band and enter a contest that will win them the needed six figures to hold off the foreclosure on not one but two of their homes.
Their major competition is a band led by a guy named Tygen Billows (a very buff Brandon Williams) who never stopped being a rocker and not only holds the mortgages on the two houses but grows an abundance of body hair that requires constant waxing. What was funny in “40-Year Old Virgin” is not funny here.
To its credit, “Gettin’ the Band Back Together” explores with far less smug condescension the themes of the current Broadway play “Straight White Men,” which would be a much better title for this musical.
Davenport, Saltzberg and The Grundleshotz even go to a place Young Jean Lee never dreamed: the straight white man’s ultimate nightmare. It’s what happens when your best friend from high school sleeps with your mother.
That song, titled “Bart’s Confession” and delivered with real gusto by Klaitz, almost makes you forget the previous dozen songs by Mark Allen that too accurately capture the homogeneous anonymity of garage bands, lounge acts and wedding singers. There’s also an exuberant dance-off between the two bands, cleverly choreographed by Chris Bailey, that’s far more imaginative than the final contest.
Director John Rando (“Urinetown”) brings his signature manic style to material that resists any kind of creative tampering.