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ON THE TOWN … with CHIP DEFFAA, February 18, 2019

"My Very Own British Invasion" is a fast, fun, breezy kind of show, chock-filled with some 30 memorable songs from the "British Invasion" of the 1960s. It's loosely inspired by experiences of Peter Noone (leader of the famed group "Herman's Hermits"), whom I very much enjoyed meeting at the opening-night party. It's professionally done, with a book ("based on an idea by Peter Noone") crafted by Rick Elice (best known for "Jersey Boys"); it's directed and choreographed with flair by Jerry Mitchell (of "Kinky Boots" renown). And while there are still a few wrinkles that need ironing out, I really enjoyed this show; it should have a bright future.

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For today’s column, I want to talk about two jukebox musicals. I had a good time at both of these shows. (And I’m not too crazy about most jukebox musicals I see.) One is brand new; and I think it has a promising future–not to mention a terrific new star, whom we’ll get to in a minute. The other show is an old favorite–the original production, 40 years ago, was first great jukebox musical I ever saw–that I was glad to revisit. Both of these jukebox musical productions merit commentary today.

Let’s start with the brand new one.

“My Very Own British Invasion” is a fast, fun, breezy kind of show, chock-filled with some 30 memorable songs from the “British Invasion” of the 1960s. It’s loosely inspired by experiences of Peter Noone (leader of the famed group “Herman’s Hermits”), whom I very much enjoyed meeting at the opening-night party. It’s professionally done, with a book (“based on an idea by Peter Noone”) crafted by Rick Elice (best known for “Jersey Boys”); it’s directed and choreographed with flair by Jerry Mitchell (of “Kinky Boots” renown). And while there are still a few wrinkles that need ironing out, I really enjoyed this show; it should have a bright future.

It’s my favorite rock “jukebox musical” to date. (I can’t stand most of ’em.) And it’s the first one that’s really made good use of these songs of the ’60s. It’s not enough to simply gather a bunch of good songs and stuff them into a show. There has to be some artfulness involved, and there has to be forward momentum. This show has both. I might add: I wasn’t looking forward to seeing “My Very Own British Invasion.” When I first heard that Paper Mill would be presenting a jukebox musical consisting of British hits of the 1960s, I groaned, fearing we’d be getting mediocre renditions of songs that had been done perfectly the first time around. But there’s a lot to like here.

There’s a storyline about two guys fighting over one girl. (That age-old plot still works–the story in this show is actually kind of touching, and the writer has managed to come up with an ending I didn’t see coming.) There are plenty of songs, done with zest, that are well worth hearing again, from “There’s a Kind of Hush (All Over the World)” to “I Only Want to Be with You,” to “House of the Rising Sun.” There are enough good songs in the score for every principal to get a moment to shine. A week after seeing the show, the star’s rendition of “I’m into Something Good” is still re-playing in my head; that one, in particular, was very nicely done.

Rick Elice has fit these songs into the storyline with better care than we usually find in jukebox musicals. There are still a few awkward moments. The show takes a bit longer than it should, I think, to find it’s stride. The very beginning needs a bit of work. It should be clearer, quicker, who the main characters are and why we should care about them. But we do come to care about them. And the star is a singer well worth hearing in his own right. He’s not doing an imitation of Peter Noone. He evokes the era. And he’s got his own kind of charm. He’s a find.

The star of “My Very Own British Invasion”–a new musical receiving its world premiere at Paper Mill Playhouse–is one Jonny Amies from England. Remember that name! Fresh out of London’s Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, Amies is giving the most satisfying theatrical debut I’ve seen anywhere in recent years.

He’s immensely likable. He’s not a dancer but he moves well; he’s clearly comfortable on stage. He’s utterly believable on throughout. And he sings with warmth and heart. His voice is well-rounded and brimming with good cheer. He has a terrific sense of time, a rhythmic sureness that serves him well. (Many aspiring performers hit notes correctly but, alas, are rhythmically stiff; I’ve seen far too many singers like that in auditions. By contrast, Amies is blessed with a buoyant sense of swing; there’s a touch of a jazz spirit in him that I like.) And he’s an utterly natural, unaffected singer–none of that straining-to-soar quality (whether the songs call for it or not)–that’s afflicted so many aspiring performers ever since the advent of such television shows as “Star Search,” “American Idol,” and “America’s Got Talent.” His singing is beguiling and unpretentious and true. You simply take to him.

Rather incredibly, this show marks his professional debut. It’s his first professional musical. It’s his first professional show of any kind. And he studied, curiously enough at a drama school–that is to say, his training was in straight dramatic acting, not musical-theater. And yet here he is–a total unknown–carrying a musical. And carrying it well. What are the odds?

Director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell has certainly picked wisely in casting him; Amies is perfect for this musical’s leading role–that of young Peter Noone.

The show still needs a bit of tinkering. If, as I hope, this musical eventually gets to Broadway, some of the roles could easily be recast. But they certainly need to keep Amies. He’s every bit as right for the leading role in this musical as a then-largely-unknown John Lloyd Young was, when he made his Broadway debut in the leading role in “Jersey Boys.”

Amies is rather endearing. We come to care about the main character of this musical, naive young Peter Noone, who’s fallen for a singer (loosely inspired by Marianne Faithful, and played by Pamela Olson) who’s in love with a bad-boy of rock (loosely inspired by Mick Jagger, and played colorfully by Conor Ryan). I didn’t completely buy the performances of either Olson or Ryan (who impressed me as very nice people doing their best to play characters a bit rougher and more dangerous than they actually are). They were likable enough. And interesting enough. And the chemistry was there. But ideally, we should see more rough edges, more suggestions of danger. (You heard in the very voices of both Marianne Faithful and Mick Jagger that they’d lived.) Kyle Taylor Parker gets to put over some soulful numbers. Daniel Stewart Sherman makes the most of his thuggish role as “The Hammer.”

Jen Perry makes a terrific impact in a brief scene as Peter’s Mum (proving once again that you don’t have to have a big part to make a big contribution to the success of a show.) She’s compelling in that scene , playing the protective, pull-no-punches mother, who doesn’t want her son getting hurt. Jen Perry makes such a vivid, striking impression as Peter’s Mum, I think it’s a mistake to use her as a random ensemble member after that. You don’t really take notice of most individual ensemble members; you’re not supposed to; they’re members of a crowd. But Perry is so strong as Peter’s Mum (and she earns a big hand), it’s impossible for her to simply disappear back into the ensemble after that. (She’s supposed to be an anonymous club patron in one scene after her scene as Peter’s Mum– but when she walked onto the stage for that scene, my first thought was: “What’s Peter’s Mum doing in this club?” I had trouble viewing her as just another club patron.)

The ensemble does a good job. It’s a youthful, high-spirited cast, and their energy never flags. I wish there were more ensemble dancing, though. Jerry Mitchell is so good at staging such numbers, it’s a pity we don’t see more–especially with so much action taking place in a club filled with patrons dancing. (The first bit of ensemble dancing ends all too quickly.) But this is a brand new musical, still in the process of finding its identity. There’s still time to adjust the seasonings, to figure out if they need a bit more of this or a bit less of that.

I was absolutely delighted the first time Amies began singing “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am.” Good memories! I was a bit less indulgent after it was reprised again, and again. It’s a cute song, a fun song. But I’m not sure there’s much more to be discovered in it, after quite so many choruses.

I hope they’ll do a bit more experimenting and adjusting, as the show moves forward, and get it just right. I had a very good time. And the show carried me along. But I’d like to see the show in the best possible shape. There are some extraneous lines that might be pruned. For example, we do not need to hear Noone verbally put down a song that he’s just sung as being “bubblegum music” and then say out loud that now he wants to rock out. Not every moment needs to be justified by dialog. Simply rocking out, without prefacing it by saying you intend to rock out next, would probably have more impact. (And fans of the earlier song don’t need to hear that Noone thinks the song they’ve just enjoyed is crap.)

But those are minor flaws. So much is right in this show–and there are so many good songs, and such a good sense of momentum, and there’s such an immensely appealing star, and the doomed love story is so touching–I left the theater energized. There’s still a bit of work for the creative team to do. But Paper Mill’s producers–Mark S. Hoebee, Patrick Parker, Michael Stotts– have found another winner.

I look forward to seeing more of this show. And seeing/hearing more of this star, Jonny Amies.

* * *

It’s very rare for me to see someone totally new to me in the starring role of a show. Usually I’ve watched them come up through other shows, starting with small roles and gradually getting more and more to do. And yet here was this unknown, Jonny Amies, doing such a fine job in “My Very Own British Invasion” that a week later his performance was still resonating within me. I’m still hearing his singing…. So I set up a little interview with him today, to see if I could learn a bit about his background. I enjoyed chatting with him.

“I come from London. I graduated this past summer from straight acting program–I never thought I’d be going into musical theater. It was never the direction I’d anticipated; I focused on acting,” Amies told me.

“I understand they were having trouble finding an American to do the part of ‘Peter Noone.’ Jerry Mitchell was in London to do a checkup on ‘Kinky Boots,’ and decided he might as well get a few people together to audition. Somehow my agent got me in the room, and the rest in history. It was one of those roles I was meant to play–a young, energetic, boy from the ‘60s who plays rock ‘n’ roll…. This is my professional debut. I’m young, and I’m open to anything. But it was very strange how it turned out for this job, because I haven’t really been involved in musicals. And I never thought I had a leading man’s voice, which is why this is so crazy.

“Since the age of 12, I’ve been in bands. And I’m passionate about writing and playing music. Five of us play in a band in London–an indie rock band with jazz influences. It’s fresh and exciting. It’s very hard to beat that feeling you get, being in a band–even playing in a hot sweaty bar in London, with friends. This summer, we’ll get demos together of our music. Can’t wait!” He’d like to be able to do it all–have a “band life” as well as an “acting life.”

What sort of music did he listen to, growing up?

“My parents brought me up on ‘60s music and rock ‘n roll. The first CD’s I remember were Elvis Presley–timeless music; picture me, a short boy with jet-black hair, trying to imitate Elvis–and a ‘60s compilation disc, with the Beatles and such, also timeless.”

Today, he says he’s got an eclectic mix of tastes in music. He might listen to anything from a contemporary group like Arctic Monkeys to Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Gregory Porter.

As for musical theater, he notes: “Growing up, I did a few musicals in school, just an excuse to get on the stage. But in comparison to my castmates in this show, I know very little about musical theater.” In his youth, he got to perform–on a amateur level–in such musicals as “Oliver” (playing the title role), “The Sound of Music” (playing “Max”); “Jesus Christ Superstar” (playing “Simon”); and “The Mikado” (playing “The Mikado”–he adds: “I was a very odd choice for that role, this very small 13-year-old playing the Mikado”).

As for “My Own British Invasion,” he says: “This show deserves a future. Jerry Mitchell, Rick Ellice, Peter Noone started this back in 2013 or 2014. It deserves a future. I believe there will be a future for this show, and I hope I’ll be part of it.”

Peter Noone, he says, “has been so kind, so honorable, so supportive.” After “My Very Own British Invasion” finishes its run at Paper Mill, Amies says, he’ll return to London. America’s left a good impression on him. “A piece of this young Brit’s heart has been stolen for America,” he says. He hopes he gets to do this show in Broadway someday.

Me, too.

* * *

I was in no mood to go out, the night I went to see “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at the Westchester Broadway dinner theater in Elmsford, New York. A friend had to nudge me. But I’m sure glad I went.

Imagine the scene….

The lights darken in the theater. We hear the irresistible voice and piano-playing of the one-and-only Fats Waller–a recording from many years ago. Then the lights come up, the recording fades down and the pianist on stage, William Foster McDaniel, continues playing the piano in the joyous spirit of Waller himself. It’s a flawless transition–and not easy to pull off. And not many pianists of today can fully get into the spirit of Waller’s work. But in this opening sequence, you can’t tell where Waller ends and McDaniel begins.

The singers strut onto the stage to put over the first number–one of Waller’s most famous numbers–“Ain’t Misbehavin’.” And already I’m hooked. It’s as effective an opening as you could hope for. And I’m confident the production is in good hands.

Westchester Broadway’s Ain’t Misbehavin’–the 208th offering at this venerable dinner theater–is indeed in good hands. For starters, it is directed by none other than Richard Maltby Jr., who conceived and directed the original New York production, some four decades ago. (It ran four years on Broadway, and won the Tony Award. The peerless original cast–which I’ll never forget–included Nell Carter, Ken Page, Andre DeShields, Charlaine Woodard, and Armelia McQueen.) William Foster McDaniel, who’s musical director of the current production, was not the original musical director of Ain’t Misbehavin’–Luther Henderson was–but he eventually wound up conducting the original Broadway cast, as well as the 1988 Broadway revival. And over the years, he’s conducted over 50 productions of this musical. He knows his stuff.

The score consists of songs Waller composed and performed, such as “Honeysuckle Rose” and “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling,” plus some numbers written by others but popularized by Waller (such as “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” and “It’s A Sin to Tell a Lie.” The show remains one of the all-time best musical revues celebrating a songwriter or performer. The score offers an abundance of riches, from big ebullient numbers, like Waller’s immortal “The Joint is Jumpin’,” to quieter (but no less intriguing) numbers like “The Jitterbug Waltz.” Plus the striking “Black and Blue.” A lot to love.

My favorite performers were Ron Lucas, M. Martine Allard (whom I haven’t seen since she was a teen in the original Broadway cast of “The Tap Dance Kid”), and Tony Perry. But all get their opportunities. (I enjoyed them, but it’s hard to compete with the memories of Nell Carter, Ken Page, and Andre DeShields). In a sense, the late Fats Waller himself is the real star of this gem of a jukebox musical.

And collectively–singing his songs and tossing in his spoken ides–the five singers and six musicians–conjure up the spirit of the irrepressible Waller. It’s a satisfying production. And dinner and the show cost much less than a ticket alone for a show in NYC.

February 19, 2019

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