Based on an idea by Peter Noone, front man of the 1960s English pop-rock band Herman’s Hermits, the world premiere of My Very Own British Invasion has opened for a limited engagement at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse (winner of the 2016 Regional Theatre Tony Award). With direction and choreography by Jerry Mitchell and book by Rick Elice, there’s no doubt that the semi-autobiographical rock-and-romance memory play has its sights set on Broadway, following the success of the venue with pre-Broadway runs and the wave of jukebox musicals that have flooded the Great White Way.
The focus of the new coming-of-age musical fable is the teenage Peter’s fictional competition with bad-boy rock star Trip for the affection of the hedonistic bad-girl rocker Pamela (inspired by Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull), though it’s clear right from the outset that she’s the wrong match for the younger and more innocent protagonist. The inter-relationships of the three central characters span the pivotal years 1964-66, set against the backdrop of The Bag O’Nails music club in London, where many of the bands of the time got their start and got to know each other (and, as recounted in the show, where John Lennon bought the real-life underage Peter Noone his first drink). As their fame and popularity spread, their burgeoning careers took all of them on concert tours to America, resulting in a new revolutionary “British Invasion” that was won “not with soldiers and muskets” but with music that was largely about love – even if ill-fated.
As with most shows in the genre, the one-dimensional characterizations, corny jokes and innuendo, references to Helen of Troy, and the thin, protracted, and redundant storyline of on-again-off-again first love, filled with the requisite sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, are employed as vehicles to tie the numbers together, sometimes with the most tenuous of connections (there’s an especially sardonic pairing of “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat” with an episode of Trip’s thug, named Hammer, taking Peter for a threatening ride) and surprising omissions (“A Must To Avoid” seems like it should have been a no-brainer, given Pamela’s libertine behavior and Peter’s ultimate heartbreak). But the set list of nearly 30 songs is not just comprised of the familiar singles by Herman’s Hermits (“I’m Into Something Good,” “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat,” “There’s a Kind of Hush,” and an audience sing-along to “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am”); it’s a mash-up of hits from the mid-60s, including favorites by The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Zombies, Yardbirds, Dave Clark Five, Animals, Dusty Springfield, Steppenwolf, and others, designed to highlight the music of, and nostalgia for, the baby-boomer era (with music supervision and arrangements by Lon Hoyt, and orchestrations by Hoyt, Francisco Centeno, Clint de Ganon, and John Putnam). And as with most jukebox musicals, it’s the music, not the narrative, that makes the show.
In his professional theatrical debut, Jonny Amies stars as Peter, bringing youthful sweetness to the role (along with an authentic British accent), and delivering the songs in a melodious style akin to the originals (his rendition of “She’s Not There” is a standout). The supporting cast is led by stars from two of Off-Broadway’s most memorable musicals of 2018, who turn in blockbuster vocals and scene-stealing performances: Conor Ryan (from Desperate Measures) as Trip; and Kyle Taylor Parker (of Smokey Joe’s Cafe) as Geno (the American singer Geno Washington, who also happens to be Noone’s brother-in-law). Ryan has the moves like Jagger, along with his egotistical, rebellious, and sexually-charged attitude (gyrating and rolling around the stage to “Can’t You See That She’s Mine”), and Parker, in addition to his powerhouse singing and range (taking the lead on a soulful “The House of the Rising Sun”), commands the stage and provides linear structure to the show as the MC and narrator. Erika Olson is less compelling as the unsympathetic and self-destructive Pamela, whose English accent and vocal solos don’t always hit the mark.
John Sanders is laughably annoying as Fallon, the manipulative manager who speaks in silly and risqué acronyms (e.g., “I need you to respect your PUSSSY . . . Your Power to Uniquely Sell-Sell-Sell Yourself”), as is Jen Perry as Peter’s overbearing ‘Mum,’ who doesn’t hesitate to embarrass him in front of Pamela. Daniel Stewart Sherman makes for a convincing ruffian in his multiple roles as Hammer, the club’s bouncer, and a drug dealer, and Bryan Fenkart, though not a look-alike, turns in a sound impersonation of the voice and speech pattern of John Lennon, who offers his support and advice to the young singer. The featured songs are enriched with harmonious backup vocals by the ensemble, many of whom also play guitar – sometimes all at once. Their movements and dancing recall the period, but with in-unison theatrical stylizations that often lack a natural spirit.
Fans of the British beat of the ‘60s will relish hearing their favorite pop classics recreated live on stage in My Very Own British Invasion at Paper Mill Playhouse. And if that’s not enough, or if you can’t make it to NJ before the end of the four-week run, those who number among his devoted following of “Noonatics” can catch the real Peter Noone himself singing the songs he made famous on his 2019 concert tour through the UK, US, and Canada with Herman’s Hermits.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.