Los Angeles Theater Review: THE BLACK SUITS (Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City)

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by Paul Birchall on November 6, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


Becoming a rock star is a uniquely American dream.  And who wouldn’t want to live a life of rock and roll excess and decadence?  When you think about rock, and in particular about this fantasy of the rocker life, the mind drifts inescapably to hedonism and living far beyond the range of the traditional moral compass.

Rock is about living on the edge.  It’s about taking an axe and smashing up your hotel room.  It’s about bimbos snorting cocaine off the penis of the band’s drummer.  It’s about groupies mobbing you and flashing their boobies as your tour bus drives by and you ultimately die from a Janis-esque heroin overdose.  It’s about Coby Getzug and Veronica Dunne in the world premiere of THE BLACK SUITS at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.boozily vomiting all over the curb of the Troubie at three in the morning.  It is about living fast and leaving a beautifully debauched corpse.

It will probably come as no surprise that none of these things happens in this tepidly involving musical.  And perhaps we don’t need rockers biting the heads off of bats on the Kirk Douglas stage – but it is even the mildest edge that is dismayingly missing in this rock musical by Joe Iconis (book, music and lyrics) and Robert Emmett Maddock (co-book writer).  Here is a rock musical that is as ferocious as a Teddy bear, and which seems to take as its central fantasy the notion that most people’s  principle rock dream is to be in the cast of Altar Boys.  Yes, director John Simpkins’ production is polished and adroitly crafted enough, but the piece is unable to evade a bland quality that is ultimately far more depressing than anyone would intend, given the upbeat overall intentions.  Rock and roll dream, maybe, if your rock and roll dreams are so small that a Foster’s Freeze chocolate sprinkle cone would pretty much do it.

The musical mostly takes place in a Long Island garage where 16-year-old Chris (Coby Getzug, pleasingly intense) is lead singer for the rock band he and his pals have formed after school.  Aside from Chris, the kids don’t really have any dreams of rock stardom:  Chris’s best pal John (Jimmy Brewer) is joining the marines, while dorky Nate (Will Roland) and plump Brandon (Harrison Chad) just enjoy tooling Will Roland, Coby Getzug, Harrison Chad (drums) and Jimmy Brewer in the world premiere of THE BLACK SUITS at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.around on their instruments.  Yet Chris, with the brass ring in his mind, enters the group in the local Battle of the Bands and gets them a gig in a roller rink.

All the kids have perfunctory easy-resolve issues that are, well, resolved fairly easily.  Chris has an anxiety disorder, John is yelled at by his Uncle, and Brandon contemplates playing drums for a different band.  Along the way, Chris’s perky wannabe-punk girlfriend Lisa (Veronica Dunne) flirts with his best buddy John, and Chris turns for advice to local pot smoking ex-rock-groupie Mrs. Werring (Annie Golden), who is able to tutor the young man in rock attitude.

Coby Getzug and Jimmy Brewer in the world premiere of THE BLACK SUITS at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.This is a rock musical, so of course the work is peppered with musical numbers extolling the passion and furor of rock and roll.  Sadly, Iconis’s music consists of mostly routine bubble gum melodies that all start to sound the same – whether the song is Chris’s ode to heartbreak or Nate’s rhapsody to a box of Little Debbie cakes.

Iconis’s lyrics do no service to the sound and are mostly easy rhymes, which is of a piece with the book’s superficial situations and incidents.  That said, Charlie Rosen’s musical direction is tight, and the unseen rock band (who actually perform the instruments the actors appear to be playing) are indeed rockin’.

Director Simpkins’ staging indeed exudes energy and passion – due mainly to the casting of an ensemble of fresh-faced young actors who are pleasingly genuine and appealing, unexceptional material notwithstanding.  However, one is struck by the fact that there seems to be a frisson of inexperience amongst the performers in terms of physical training.  We can’t help but notice that the voices become strained Annie Golden in the world premiere of THE BLACK SUITS at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.and ragged after the first couple of songs – a problem that becomes particularly awkward during the final sequences in which the band is supposed to wow us with their ultimate showmanship, yet some singers barely seem to be able to croak their way to their top notes.

Getzug is nicely driven as the band’s lead singer, and his character is interestingly suffused with angst, providing more dramatic texture than is actually provided by the libretto.  As Chris’s best pal, Brewer very occasionally offers hints of a subversive sensuality that suggests a rock star’s personality – but his character’s troubles are resolved with an easy convenience that is anything but rock ‘n’ roll fierce.  Ironically, it is the play’s senior performer, Golden, who is most touching and multi-dimensional as the pathetic aging former rock groupie, one who’s been ridden hard and put away wet.  Her solo song, in which she declares to Chris the extent to which she is the embodiment of the superficiality of rock culture, is the show’s most powerful.

Will Roland, Harrison Chad, Coby Getzug and Jimmy Brewer in the world premiere of THE BLACK SUITS at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.The Black Suits may be more about youthful hope and innocence than it is about rock dreams, but the lack of the dark side ultimately leaves the piece deeply slight and trivial.  It’s a show that needs to amp up the sense of danger and the true sense of rock and roll, which happens to be mostly missing from the show’s largely sentimental Muzak soul.

photos by Craig Schwartz

The Black Suits
Center Theatre Group
Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City
scheduled to end on November 24, 2013
for tickets, call 213.628.2772 or visit http://www.centertheatregroup.org/

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