Oklahoma hinges on whether a flighty girl should take one or another to the box-lunch social. The Pajama Game expects audiences to care if a group of workers gets a 7-½ cent pay raise. Musicals have often taken pedestrian subject matters and compelled audiences to care deeply about their characters' dramas. The idea of a teen band striving for success could be an interesting one. But mundane emo music and tedious characterizations sabotage The Black Suits, a new musical now playing Center Theatre Group. Even a likable cast, including '70s punk-rocker Annie Golden, is not able to invigorate the show.
Four friends — three in high school and one since graduated — practice endlessly to become the next hot rock band. Chris (played by Coby Getzug), the leader, dreams of fame at the cost of his relationship with the flighty Lisa (played by Veronica Dunne). John (played by Jimmy Brewer), the slacker, would rather smoke pot than play in the group but feels an obligation to his best bud, Chris. Nato (played by Will Roland), enjoys his oddball status, carrying around a ceramic frog for spiritual guidance. The pudgy Brandon (played by Harrison Chad) just wants his mates' respect, wishing they would take his songwriting seriously. Relationship dramas seriously threaten the group, and their goal to compete in the town battle of the bands.
Composer Joe Iconis wrote a stirring song for season two of Smash: "Broadway, Here I Come." None of his songs for The Black Suits distinguish themselves. It is implied by nature of the situation that the band members wrote the songs performed, therefore if the songs are unexciting, by extension, it takes away a belief in their talent.
The book by Robert Emmett Maddock and Iconis compounds the issues by making the characters whiny and noncommittal, leaving the audience with morose characters who do not have the chops to make it in the business anyway. Chris battles rage issues and reflecting his own father's dismissive attitude toward him. In addition Chris treats his friends pretty shabbily. Having a bipolar lead character is intriguing; it fascinated audiences of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next To Normal. But this script treats his disorder halfheartedly, making him seem more like a jerk than a troubled youth. The other members seem to be in the band due to boredom or lack of options as opposed to an obsession with creating music together.
All of the cast members work hard to connect with the audience. Each has a solid voice and a commitment to their roles. Brewer sinks his teeth into "The Answer," a number in which it dawns on his character, while taking a placement exam for his military academy, that not only are his chances of remaining at the school low, but that he is aimless without the regiment of his school life. Getzug also explores his character's pain relating to his dad in "Old Records." Golden, as the slightly creepy neighbor/mentor, attempts an airy nostalgia for a time when she was a player in the punk scene but is given no interesting songs. Her phone conversation with a former punk star is touchingly pathetic and perfect for Golden's precarious voice stylings. Roland stands out as the goofy guitarist. His character does not really fit into the drama — he is mostly on the sidelines — but his line readings land all the best jokes.
Director John Simpkins and his writers need to devise reasons why the audience should care about these kids' plights. Their back stories need polishing and their infatuation for the music must be strengthened so they appear as more than entitled brats dabbling in rock 'n' roll. Without this, the best reaction the musical elicits is, "so what?"
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