Joe Iconis, a promising 32-year-old composer, is best known for writing the song “Broadway, Here I Come” for Season 2 of the now-defunct backstage theater soap opera “Smash.”
His new musical “The Black Suits,” which opened Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, will likely be as swiftly forgotten as that much-derided NBC series, but it at least gives us a chance to get better acquainted with a talent musical theater insiders have been excitedly touting.
The show revolves around a Long Island garage band led by Christopher (Coby Getzug), a high school kid with an anxiety disorder, an absentee father and dreams of Nassau County stardom. The three other members of the group each has his own issues and quirks, all of which are writ large in the none-too-subtle book that Iconis co-wrote with Robert Emmett Maddock and in the character-revealing songs Iconis assigns them.
The newly christened Black Suits — so new they don’t even have their signature duds yet — is a ragtag crew of amateur musicians. The Bad News Bears of ingratiating rock.
John (Jimmy Brewer), the good-looking guitarist, is home from the Merchant Marines Academy, uncertain of his future and not wanting to follow in the footsteps of his imprisoned father. Nate (Will Roland), the bass player who goes by “Nato,” carries around a ceramic frog he calls Mr. Ribbit and has himself a sort of goofy Kermit-like demeanor. Brandon (Harrison Chad), the heavyset drummer, is a nerd heading to a prestigious music school who can’t for the life of him crack the code of being cool.
Two other characters lend oddball support: Lisa (Veronica Dunne), Chris’ arty girlfriend with the hemp purse who grows weary of being shunted aside for the band, and Mrs. Werring (Annie Golden), Chris’ wacky neighbor who serves as mentor to him, regaling him with tales from her glam rock groupie days while offering words of encouragement and a ready supply of weed.
The majority of new musicals have second-act problems. “The Black Suits” has a first-act problem. The issue: banality. Iconis and Maddock set up the dramatic situation with all the edginess of an “After School Special.”
Will this justifiably insecure white suburban band realize Chris’ dream of winning the St. Ann’s Battle of the Bands? Forgive me if this local contest didn’t exactly have me on the edge of my seat.
It’s not the small-time nature of the competition that depresses dramatic interest. It’s that the characters are generically constructed, their pathos standard-issue. As outsiders go, they’re a bunch of milquetoasts. Even their eccentricities have an innocuous quality. When student photographer Lisa rebels, she dyes her hair blue. Shocking as this may be to parents, there’s a tremendous amount of adolescent brooding, hip-hop mimicry and junk-food bingeing.
When the intermission arrived, I was bewildered by the low dramatic stakes. What was compelling our return? Certainly not the music, which is pleasant enough if you like homemade rock processed through a glee club filter. But even when confidently performed by an out-of-sight orchestra (conducted by bass player Charlie Rosen), this isn’t a genre most people eagerly seek out.
Every generation has its own garage band sound. John jokingly refers to the Who’s Roger Daltrey as “Dad Rock,” but there’s nothing particularly distinctive about the Black Suits, whose first gig, appropriately enough, is at a roller rink. Seriously, the play could be set one or two decades in the past without Iconis having to revamp his score.
Fortunately, the second act begins with one of the musical’s best numbers, “Amphibian.” The song is written expressly for Nato (“I’m hanging around and dreaming of chicks / And my area code is 516 / And I would thrive in the Caribbean / But I’m a Long Island amphibian”) but enjoyed by all the Black Suits, who finally get the opportunity to revel in their camaraderie. It’s one of the few moments when I was aware that the show had a choreographer (Jennifer Werner).
The banality, I’m afraid, isn’t held in abeyance for long. When the band temporarily breaks up, Nato hits the Oreos hard and Chris and John come to blows! But Golden gets a song worthy of her outré delightfulness: “Band-Aids and Cigarettes,” in which she acknowledges to Chris the limits of what she, a blowsy relic from the Velvet Underground days, can offer him.
Is it a problem that Golden is the only cast member who can conjure the distinct tang of a Long Island accent? The production, directed by John Simpkins, is as concerned with place as it is with time. Which is to say “The Black Suits” could be set anywhere a lack of diversity wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. The garage designed by Derek McLane might reasonably be next door to the Partridge Family’s old house.
The real interest in “The Black Suits” is Iconis’ budding craft. Too often his songs explicitly advance the story or update us on character, as though he’s still trying to impress his professors from NYU’s graduate musical theater writing program. But on those few occasions when he lets the music and lyrics playfully off their narrative leash, he winds up making good on the high expectations placed on his evident gifts.
‘The Black Suits’
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.)
Ends: Nov. 24
Price: $20 to $55
Contact: (213) 628-2772 or https://www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes