The music brings this story to life
My Very Own British Invasion bills itself as “a musical fable of rock n’ love.” The newest production at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn does not purport to be a history of the British Invasion, that period of the 1960’s when all that was new and exciting in rock music seemed to be coming out of London. However, it uses that youthful energy and the music it spawned as the background for a simplistic nostalgia trip-cum-love story that foregoes any real emotional engagement.
It’s 1964, and the place to go to hear just-before-stardom rockers is the Bag O’ Nails, a club in Soho. 15-year-old Peter Noone (Jonny Amies) can’t get into the club except as a guest of his friend John (Bryan Frenkart), who at times performs there with his friends Paul, George, and Ringo. It’s love at first sight when Peter catches his first glimpse of Pamela (Erika Olson), currently going with bad boy rock sensation Trip (Conor Ryan). In no time there’s a full-blown competition between Peter and Trip for Pamela — but Pamela makes it clear she is no prize in a contest of male egos. Writing music, recording, and performing on tour have the three main characters meeting and separating over the next two years. When Pamela finally makes her choice, the tale ends.
Over two dozen songs from the era provide the soundtrack to this show, performed by an enthusiastic cast. Along with Jonny Amies, Conor Ryan, and Erika Olson, fine musical work is done by Kyle Taylor Parker who plays Geno, a black American from Cleveland serving as the narrator of the show and the leader of the chorus. John Sanders is the manipulative manager of Peter, Trip, and Pamela, a slimy villain who will brook no interference with his plans. Daniel Stewart Sherman’s Hammer is a more sinister figure, a thug who allows Trip to keep his hands clean when dealing with inconvenient people. Mr. Sherman and Mr. Amies do provide a humorous moment by performing a screwball duet on “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat?” Finally, in a scene-stealing performance, Jen Perry as Peter’s mum provides broad humor backed up by a clear-eyed view of her son’s romance.
Award-winning director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell puts the cast through their paces, although some of the dance moves are not from the era of the show. There are some sweet, calm moments, especially Peter and Pamela’s quiet rendition of “There’s a Kind of Hush”. The onstage band led by conductor/arranger Len Hoyt never seems to take a false step in their accompaniment to the goings-on on stage. David Rockwell’s unit set, with its sliding stage and runway, works not only as a 60’s rock club but also as any other locale required by the show, ably aided by the lighting designs of Kenneth Posner and Andrew Lazarow’s projections. Gregg Barnes’ costumes recreate an era when not only bold music but fashion trends emanated from “Swinging London”.
The weakest part of this show is, unfortunately, the book. Rick Elice’s love story only seems to come alive when someone is singing. Main elements of the story are told by Geno the narrator instead of being shown on stage. Ultimately, without the music, what’s left is an old familiar tale with not much to lift it above similar stories told before.
If the era which spawned the British Invasion is a fondly-remembered piece of your past, then you will enjoy the music and the performances that make up My Very Own British Invasion. If not, then you may feel disappointed in making the trip to Millburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse to see this show.
My Very Own British Invasion is presented by the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through March 3, 2019. For tickets and information, visit papermill.org.