Has New Jersey become the go-to setting for musicals these days?
First, Broadway audiences in 2005 were transported back to the hit-making days of The Four Seasons in “Jersey Boys.” Three years later, the dialogue and music to “The Toxic Avenger” were littered with references to the Garden State.
Now comes “Gettin’ The Band Back Together,” an original musical that opens at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick tonight.
In the show, 40-year-old Mitch is fired from his Wall Street job and forced to move back into his mother’s home in Sayreville. (Yes, the hometown of Jon Bon Jovi.) Before long, he reconnects with old friends and ends up reforming his high school rock group up for a battle of the bands.
“It’s definitely crafted with the New Jersey insider humor in mind,” explains Mitchell Jarvis, the Broadway actor who plays Mitch.
The show — which runs through Oct. 27 — is also crafted by a group of theater veterans. It’s directed by Tony winner John Rando (“Urinetown”), with music by award-winning composer Mark Allen and additional material by noted writer Sarah Saltzberg. The book, meanwhile, was penned by Tony-winning producer Ken Davenport (“Kinky Boots”) and The Grundleshotz — a group of 13 actors and writers who got together once a month for three months to create the characters and brainstorm scenes.
Plus, audiences may know lead-actor Jarvis from his two most famous roles: the mustachioed narrator in the original cast of Broadway hit “Rock of Ages” and the mustachioed pitchman Keith Stone in TV commercials for Keystone Light.
Culture Vultures’ Brent Johnson spoke with Jarvis about the musical, his Christian-music roots, what Midwesterners think of New Jersey, and more.
Culture Vultures: It is odd to play a character that has your real name? Or does that make it easier?
Mitchell Jarvis: It’s a little bizarre, because you hear people saying your name twice as often. But I’ve actually played my own name before — even though I’ve met only two Mitches in my life.
CV: What was the other time you played a character named Mitch?
MJ: I did this little independent movie in, like, 2005 where the character was actually named after me. It’s a little strange, but it makes it easier to catch your lines when you’re highlighting.
MJ: I guess so. It seems to be what happens with actors. You get pigeon-holed into doing something if you do it well. But, you know, I enjoy singing this kind of stuff, and it doesn’t make me approach the material any differently than if I were doing a different style of music.
CV: Did you get into music or theater first?
MJ: My family was all singers. My dad was a minister actually, and we would travel around as a family band when I was a kid. So it’s always something that I’ve done — though I didn’t get really serious about it until high school. I auditioned for “Jesus Christ Superstar” my junior year, and they needed tenors. So, I kind of auditioned on a lark and got Judas and did it and really kind of felt like, ‘This is what I’m supposed to be doing.’
CV: What kind of music did you play with the family band?
MJ: It was a very conservative, contemporary Christian sound in the ’80s. Not the most exciting fare. [laughs] But it makes for good stories and the albums are nice to have as memories. But it’s certainly not the kind of thing I’d seek out to sing anymore.
CV: You grew up in Minnesota, right?
MJ: Mostly. I was born in California and we moved when I was a baby to Colorado. We moved to Minnesota when I was going into the third grade. So, I lived there all the way through school until I went to college.
CV: One thing I’ve always wondered about Minnesota: If you grow up in New Jersey, you are practically required to like Bruce Springsteen. If you grow up in Minnesota, are you required to like Prince?
MJ: I think for normal kids growing up in Minnesota, probably. But I was very sheltered and very much not exposed to a real secular market of music — which I resent greatly later in life. But I think most Minnesota probably love Prince and Bob Dylan.
CV: Speaking of which, what are Midwesterners’ impressions of New Jersey when they arrive here? Does it live up to the stereotypes? Is it nicer than others say?
MJ: I always take the stereotypes with a grain of salt. My real introduction to New Jersey was a girl I went to college with — from East Brunswick. We would come stay with her family if there were New York auditions while we were in college. It just seemed like kind of an offshoot of New York. I think New Jersey people are the salt of the earth. I enjoy New Jersey.
CV: It seems these days it’s rare to see an original musical — one that isn’t based on existing material. Is that something you’ve seen?
MJ: Yeah. You could probably count on two hands the actual original musicals that have ever existed — that weren’t based off some sort of source material. It’s nice. I like doing original stuff. You get to really kind of pull the layers back and figure out what it is.
MJ: It’s just a lot of fun. I think the characters are very relatable. I think the subject matter will resonate with a lot of people. It seems to me the majority of people don’t particularly follow their childhood dreams and ambitions into their adulthood. I think it will resonate for anybody who decided to take the safer route in their life — which I certainly did not with mine. But I think I’m in the minority. This show really reaches out to anybody who really had a dream to do music or to do acting or follow a career in the arts. I think that’s probably a lot of people. I feel that will be the hook, the thing that gets people interested in this way.
CV: You’re coming off playing Frank N. Furter in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” right?
MJ: Correct. Well, in between, I played Shakespeare in this little film, where I was a high school student’s hallucination of William Shakespeare. So I’ve gotten to play some very broad characters leading up to this one, who is very much the everyman, the straight-man character. It’s actually a bit of a departure for me.
CV: That may be the only time in history anyone has gone from playing Frank N. Furter to William Shakespeare.
MJ: [laughs] Yeah. It’s kind of this rock ‘n’ roll Shakespeare — this high school nerd’s fantasy of William Shakespeare. So I got to play him almost like a cartoon character.
CV: What do people know you the most for? “Rock of Ages?” Keith Stone?
MJ: Probably one of those, depending on if you’re in New York or out of New York. In New York, people recognize me for “Rock of Ages.” Outside of New York, I would say it’s the Keystone ads.
CV: Do people come up to you and mention the Keystone ads?
MJ: Not so much anymore. I don’t have the mustache or the hair anymore. So nobody puts it together unless they read my bio. Usually, it’s people coming up to me talking about how they had to put that together.
CV: The cast and crew of this show are fantastic. And people don’t always realize you don’t have to go to Broadway to see this level of theater.
MJ: They’ve got quite a team assembled for this show. And the thing about coming to New Brunswick to do a show is: It’s got a safer feel. People are a bit more relaxed creating something new. It’s kind of a more welcoming atmosphere for the first go-round.
CV: Last question: If you were in a battle of the bands personally, and you had only one song to grab people’s attention, what would you sing?
MJ: Several times, I’ve played it for comedy, but I’ve done ‘Careless Whisper’ by George Michael. That’s a lot of fun to sing live. But there’s this Marc Broussard song called ‘Home’ that I’ve wanted to do with a band for a while.
If I could sing in a band, I think I’d want to do kind of Danger Mouse/Gnarles Barkley kind of stuff — kind of electro-soul-funk kind of stuff. That’s kind of where my voice and my stylization go naturally. So, it’s actually kind of funny that people want me to do rock shows. I really prefer singing kind of soulful stuff.
“Gettin’ The Band Back Together” opens at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick on September 24 and runs through October 27, 2013. For more information or tickets, visit http://www.georgestreetplayhouse.org/mainstage/gettinthebandbacktogether.
Editor’s note: Culture Vulture’s writer Gary Wien recently interviewed award-winning producer Ken Davenport about “Getting’ The Band Back Together.” Check out his piece at http://www.newjerseystage.com/articles/getarticle.php?ID=2784.