Ah, the plight of the white suburban teenage boy and his motley garage rock band. Pimply, angsty, Kurt Cobain-inspired, Ritalin-ridden, and narcissistic. So charming, and certainly the basis for more than a few rock origin stories. But here?s the thing — you need great rock music to make a great rock musical. Unfortunately, The Black Suits, which plays through Nov. 24 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, Calif., has its heart in the right place, but the music is more Smash than Smashing Pumpkins. (That shouldn?t be a surprise since the book and lyrics are by Joe Iconis, who had two songs featured on the failed NBC show?s second season).
The Black Suits are a modern-day high school band made up of four millenials trying to make it to the ultimate end-of-summer Battle of the Bands on Long Island, but the lackluster songs make it hard to tell if they are actually supposed to be good or if they are intentionally a mediocre high school band. Frontman Chris (Coby Getzug) has a broken home, an absent dad, and an anxiety disorder, while his guitar-playing best friend, John (Jimmy Brewer), is a year older, in the Merchant Marines, and flailing since leaving high school. Though the two are given the show’s best numbers (”Old Records” and the Act 1-ending showstopper ”Bang Bang Bang Bang Bang”), neither seems likely to develop the cult-like following in the real world.
Still, director John Simpkins compensates with creative staging and some strong supporting performances. Annie Golden (Norma on Orange is the New Black) is a delight as aging groupie Mrs. Werring — think Penny Lane from Almost Famous all grown up and living in Garden City, Long Island — who acts as a guru/mentor to Chris. And Veronica Dunne shines as Chris? sometime girlfriend, Lisa. Her solo ”Blue Hair” is sweet and rebellious and her crystal-clear voice makes you wish she were the Suits’ lead singer. Thanks to scenic designer Derek McLane, the small stage at the Kirk Douglas is turned into a garage (of course) as well as a bedroom, a roller rink, a stage, a Taco Bell drive-thru, and a kitchen.
But The Black Suits never gets deep enough into the roots of suburban angst to make you feel like these guys really have something to rage about — nor does it come up with light, frothy pop numbers that urge you to bop along. Perhaps Iconis should have called in a few favors to the rock gods for this one — some help from a seasoned star a la Duncan Sheik?s Spring Awakening might have made The Black Suits worth dressing up for. C+