Paper Mill Playhouse (Milburn, NJ) is presenting the world premiere of My Very Own British Invasion, through March 3. Billed as “a musical fable of rock n’ love,” the book is by two-time Tony nominee Rick Elice (Jersey Boys, Peter and the Starcatcher), currently represented on Broadway with The Cher Show, loosely based on the life of Herman Hermits’ vocalist/guitarist Peter Noone. Direction and choreography are by two-time Tony winner (choreography) Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots, 2005 La Cage aux Folles), recipient of eight nominations (including one for Hairspray). The musical, bursting with 30 classic tunes, “tells a fable of young love, set against the backdrop of the exploding 1960s music scene – when England launched the little dustup that became known as the British Invasion. The setting is mainly the Bag O’ Nails club on Kingly Street in Soho, accurately rendered by Tony winner (2018 She Loves Me; and a six-time nominee) David Rockwell’s set, the home-away-from-home for London and touring rock musicians. They included The Who, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Marianne Faithful, Mick Jagger, Twiggy, and Freddie Mercury.
Noone did wander into Bag O’Nails, a Cockney corruption of “bacchanal,” where he was befriended by Lennon, who became his idol “even before the Beatles became famous,” and Jagger.
In the mid-60s, the Hermits and any group with “pudding basin haircuts and an adorable English accent” was in demand in the U.S. Tailgating on the fame of the Beatles, they may have lost the Revolutionary War, but their subsequent “invasion” was won on the concert circuit and TV variety shows, such as Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town, “not with soldiers and muskets” but screaming female fans drowning out the music.
Andrew Lazarow’s colorful full-stage projections take the audience to dozens of U.K. and U.S. locales; and, in the finale, a classy, poignant rendering of the lyrics of “In My Life.”
Loosely based on the experiences of Noone, in the musical he’s in love with Pamela – a stand-in for Marianne Faithful, who’s in an intense but masochist relationship with bad boy rocker Trip, a stand-in for Mick Jagger. Noone is willing to sacrifice international stardom to have girl he loves.
“It’s not exactly my story,” Noone points out. “My life was bit different … There was no love triangle between Mick, Marianne, and me. I was only 16 and not old enough for any of that. Mick did get her. I just wanted her.”
The partly fictional Noone is played by the U.K.’s Jonny Amies, at 22 and straight out of drama school, making his theatrical debut. He has the authentic drawl and accent to impersonate Noone. He also has acting chops. The opening night audience gave him quite a royal welcome.
The 19-strong American cast, with assist from dialogue coach Kate Wilson, acquit themselves quite well in the accent department but aren’t always that easy to understand.
Stunning singer/dancer Erika Olson (Cynthia Weil, Beautiful, First National Tour) is Pamela. The unquenchable egotist Trip is played by lanky Connor Ryan (seen in the 2013 Cinderella), who won accolades recently as Johnny Blood in Off Broadway’s Desperate Measures. He marvelously channels Jagger’s strut and swagger.
The musical’s narrator, Everyman, and excellent soul belter is Geno, in the capable hands and great voice of Kyle Taylor Parker (recent Off Broadway revival Five Guys Named Moe and a 2015 Lola in Kinky Boots), whom Elice loosely based on American R&B singer Geno Washington of the Ram Jam Band, popular in the U.K. in the mid- and late 60s. [Washington met his wife Frenchie, sister of Noone’s wife Mirelle, at the Bag O’ Nails – making them brother-in-laws.]
With tunes recorded by the Animals, Beatles, Hermits, Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield, Yardbirds, and Zombies, it’s a jukebox musical feast of the era. Some are written by names you’ll know: Dave Clark, Jagger and Keith Richards, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Lennon and McCartney, Frankie Lymon, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Steppenwolf, and Bobby Troup.
Herman’s Hermits not only made hit records – selling in excess of 60 million and racking up 14 Gold singles and seven Gold LPs, but were also starred in hit movies with teen appeal. Their hits in the show include “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat,” “I’m Into Something Good,” “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” “There’s a Kind of Hush (All Over the World),” and a 1910 Brit music hall chestnut the band had immense success with, “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am.”
In development since 2015 and with its eyes set on Broadway, My Very Own British Invasion, is an entertaining but often rambling balance of fact and fiction. As he showed with Jersey Boys, Elice knows something about song placement. With so many songs in just over two hours, however, there’s not a lot of character development. It’s not until Act Two, when the love triangle gets heated, that Elice gets deeper into the story and provides some dimension.
Trip attempts to turn Pamela against Noone by revealing some past sexual misconduct. Later, when Noone crosses the pond in an attempt to rescue a now drug-addled Pamela from her U.S. tour, he explains the gossip is actually about Noone’s character (Stanley), which he (actually) portrayed during the 1961 season of the long-running Brit soap, Coronation Street. Finally, Pamela realizes Trip just sees her as eye candy, “the kind that rots your teeth and drives you mad.” Still, one minute she’s in bed with him and the next swooning over Noone, who’s ready to ditch his career and marry her -- give her a dream home with white picket fence, a porch, garden and a “world [that] smells clean and kind and holy.” She castigates Trip: “You just want to freeze me in a cake and thaw me out when you want to.” Though deeply in love with Peter, she can’t find the backbone to break away.
Ryan accomplishes his task of being despicable with aplomb, only redeeming Trip (albeit briefly) in Act Two with a heartfelt rendition of “You’re My World” in an attempt to win her back. Sadly, just as you’re buying it as much as Pamela seems to be, the tender ballad segues ways into a heavily-amped, bravado-filled rendition at the club destroying an opportunity for the audience to feel what has been impossible for them to feel for him.
Mitchell recreates such 60s dance fads as the Freddie, Frug, Loco-motion, and Twist, but the show is absent of the energetic choreography Mitchell is known for until he finally pulls a couple of tricks out of his bag. One of the best sequences of Act One is set in the New Orleans French Quarter where Parker delivered a poignant “House of the Rising Sun” that brought extended thunderous applause.
At the end of the act, in “Born to Be Wild,” there are 15 cast members playing guitars while march-stepping across stage; then, in Act Two, a male ensemble of six guitar players dancing in the style of Brit guitar virtuoso Hank Marvin*; and, the lively “In My Life” finale, with the company featured on guitar and tambourine and doing some smart choreography.
*For an example of the marvelous Marvin in action, check out the YouTube video of Marvin accompanying Tim Rice in a telecast showcasing the first pop tune Rice wrote lyrics and music for, “That’s My Story.”
Another Act Two highlight is Olson’s sizzling madcap romp to “The Girl Can’t Help It,” the title tune from the 1956 Jayne Mansfield comedy.
There are impressive bits from company members, such as Emma Degerstedt as Suki, the Yank in the mini mini-shirt who tries in vain to tear Peter away from Pamela; Jen Perry, who plays three (or more) roles: Ringo Starr, Betty, and Peter’s mum; and ensemble member Trista Dollison (most recently in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), who’s not credited in the song line-up but, as Woman late in Act Two, delivers a radiant soul belt on a verse of the gospel-infused reprise of “What Can a Man Do.”
Costume design with influences from 60s Carnaby Street fashions is by Olivier and two-time Tony Award winner Gregg Barnes (2012 Follies revival, Drowsy Chaperone), recipient of eight nominations (currently, Pretty Woman). Lon Hoyt is music director and vocal arranger.
Mark S. Hoebee is Paper Mill’s producing artistic director, with Michael Stotts as managing director. My Very Own British Invasion is produced in association with Hal Luftig, Craig Haffner and Rodney Rigby. Running through March 3.
Production photos by JERRY DALIA