The Black Suits: Theater Review

Earnest but plain-wrap new musical about teenage garage group getting it together for the big battle of the bands at the local church. 

The "Smash" vet Joe Iconis pens a musical about a group of garage rock hopefuls, world-premiering at the Kirk Douglas in Culver City.

Nearly 50 years out from its half-century-long golden age, the American stage musical continues to suffer an ambivalent and largely unsatisfying relationship with the pop music that left it behind. Self-proclaimed “rock” musicals from Your Own Thing on have tended more toward “Broadway rockish,” and more recently, the jukebox trend has simply lifted oldies wholesale. (Hell, rock music itself barely survives as a central part of the pop scene anymore.) It remains a valiant effort to attempt to integrate contemporary song into the classic book musical form.

The Black Suits mostly makes a professional and attentive stab at sincere observation of adolescent dreams and angst as expressed through the music they make themselves, together, as an emblem of the bonds of friendship. It fails to overcome two fundamental problems inherent in the enterprise: first, that rock and roll, even inflected with mild soupcons of punk and hip-hop, simply doesn’t well serve the arc of a larger theatrical narrative (a “rock opera” being a different animal); and second, despite no shortage of good music, it’s been at least two decades (when “alternative” and “gangsta” provided some temporary innovations) since youth culture has generated a truly new expression that was distinctively its own.  

Consequently, the songs (and minimal dance) in The Black Suits have a difficult time establishing any compelling exploration of its admittedly universal themes. It’s a bland show with a paucity of raw ambition, itself the fatal flaw of its ever so sincere protagonists. David Chase’s problematic take on the same themes in last year’s film Not Fade Away nevertheless penetrated with greater complexity and genuine insight.

In Garden City on New York’s Long Island, Chris (Coby Getzug, uncannily like a Farley Granger for the new age) writes the songs and sings lead for the group, the aggressive dreamer (and youngest member) of the band. He ignores his girlfriend Lisa (Veronica Dunne) and browbeats the other members: his close buddy John (Jimmy Brewer), lead guitar hero and increasingly desperate dropout; nerdy “Nato” (Will Roland), on bass; and drummer Brandon (Harrison Chad), the only one with real chops and a musical education. Everyone callowly seeks out that elusive cool, clueless that the most rock ‘n’ roll ‘tude consists above all about authentically not caring -- especially about cool.

It can be hard to accept these kids, less punk than Wonder Bread, as representative of anything recognizably contemporary. At least the actors are all young and able enough to be credible emotionally. I do wonder if an aware adolescent girl can still today be enticed against her better judgment to accompany her boyfriend’s best friend on a drug run through the irresistibly seductive promise of a KFC pit stop.

Nevertheless, a great deal of the first act manages to be engaging, though the updates on Mickey-and-Judy riffs rarely strike fresh. The second act suffers from a progressive loss of energy even as the paltry stakes wax more consequential. Songwriter Joe Iconis, who penned several notable hits on the series Smash, certainly has versatility and an apparent ability to craft a song for any purpose as if to order. His workmanlike attention to detail keeps everything listenable, and the lyrics consistently don’t stumble except when they are supposed to suck. Still, the songs don’t transcend the insistently expository nature of most book musical numbers of recent years, too many in thrall to the transcendent example of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Soliloquy” from Carousel, the personal exhortation proffered by the character that was such a showstopper then seems lazy and banal when deployed several times here.

Yet the show never does descend to the level of either bad or stupid, and there is a pronounced glow at its periphery. Annie Golden, girl singer for the lamentably neglected ’70s downtown art-poppers The Shirts and doomed never to be forgotten for her Jeanie in the Milos Forman film of Hair, still brings her style of lively pathos to her indefatigably committed groupie, the sixtyish Mrs. Werring, who mentors Chris with the encouragement of an empathetic validator of empowering delusion. This woman needs her own musical, and she could thrive so in like company!

Venue: Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City (runs through Nov. 24)

Cast: Coby Getzug, Harrison Chad, Jimmy Brewer, Will Roland, Veronica Dunne, Annie Golden

Director: John Simpkins

Music and Lyrics: Joe Iconis

Musical direction & orchestrations: Charlie Rosen

Book: Joe Iconis & Robert Emmett Maddock

Set designer: Derek McLane

Costume designer: Paloma Young

Lighting designer: Ben Stanton

Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners

Choreography: Jennifer Werner