MILLBURN, NJ — If you go see “My Very Own British Invasion” without even knowing what it’s about, here’s the thing: the core message literally broadcasts itself on the theater’s sound system as you take your seats in a mélange of hits from the 1960s British Invasion rock bands.
Iconic music transcends time and space.
Paper Mill Playhouse’s highly-anticipated world premiere of “My Very Own British Invasion” rolled out the red carpet on Sunday night for Peter Noone, the singer/songwriter of Herman’s Hermits, one of the English beat rock bands that led the British Invasion, whose story inspired the musical. Along with Noone’s family, performers Christian Borle and Constantine Maroulis were also in the house to celebrate the third consecutive production of the Tony Award-winning regional theater’s 80th anniversary season.
So what about that story?
Tony Award-winning book writer Rick Elice presented a “musical fable,” which took inspiration from Noone’s memories. The kernel was a love triangle between three young musicians set to two dozen hits from the British Invasion bands woven into graceful, fluid transitions.
Sixteen year-old Peter was modeled after Noone as a clean-cut pure-hearted teen. Nineteen year-old Trip was modeled after Mick Jagger as a peacocking rebel rocker. Both were vying for the heart of eighteen year-old Pamela, the ambitious talented English rose modeled after Marianne Faithfull.
The year was 1964. Lyndon B. Johnson was president, following Kennedy’s assassination in November, 1963. The Civil Rights Act officially abolished racial segregation in America, and draft cards were burned for the first time to protest the Vietnam War, which had been raging for almost a decade.
Biographical avatars such as Mary Quant, played vivaciously by Gemma Baird, gave historical authority, and topical humor tapped cultural milestones such as the James Bond “Goldfinger” film, which dropped that year.
A historical reenactment at the beginning of Act I traced Beatlemania and the start of the British Invasion when The Beatles’s chart-topping single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” was followed-up by their famous Ed Sullivan Show appearance, here played by Travis Artz. John Sanders played Brian Epstein, the impresario who turned the former Liverpool mods into four handsome, witty lads with mop-headed bangs and scraggly sideburns. John Lennon became a lighthearted mentor-figure via Bryan Fenkart flanked by Douglas Goodhart as Paul, Graham Scott Fleming as Ringo, and Cory Jeacoma as George.
The Union Jack rose on the Bag O’Nails Club on Kingly Street in London’s Soho district, a notorious ” sing-along dive” where bright young things congregated before they were stars — Eric Clapton, Twiggy, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles, among others.
Scenic designer David Rockwell visualized the subterranean club with a central dance floor and a retractable stage. The house band, led by music director Lon Hoyt, played from a bandstand at the stage rear with keyboardists, guitarists, bassists, and drummers.
Kyle Taylor Parker was Geno Washington, the club’s owner who narrated in a warm, dusky voice that resonated richly in key pieces such as The Moody Blues’ “Go Now.” Historically-placed, Washington was an American expat who went to England with the USAF in the 60s and never left — and cool trivia — he’s Noone’s brother-in-law IRL!
Another club fixture was Fallon, resident talent manger (also played by Sanders) who gave the character a nice moral ambiguity, and employed the muscle of fixer/bodyguard Daniel Stewart Sherman as The Hammer (also Pam’s American drug dealer), played in good humor to soften the thuggish overtones.
On hair and makeup, Josh Marquette gave women liquid-lined cat eyes, and a mix of natural hair and wigs, such as a high-low bouffant for ensemblist Trista Dollison as Brenda, who sang a standout solo in “What Can a Man Do?”
Costume designer Gregg Barnes relied on rich lush 60s textures — brocades, jacquard, metallics, pinstripes, and prints — and go-go and heeled boots for the company of mods, beatniks and rockers, and the models, managers and fixers who hung around them.
Tony Award-winning director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell mixed energetic Sixties dance moves with naturalistic staging for a fresh, relatable, interactive, spontaneous feel. Ensemblists often had musical instruments in-hand, among them John Campione, Jay Donnell, Sage Melcher, and Daniel Yearwood. A standout was the Act I Steppenwolf “Born To Be Wild” finale with the full company of inexhaustible energy, led by Dance Captain Emma Degerstedt, who also played a bubbly Suki, Fallon’s honeypot sent to distract Peter in America on his quest to rescue Pam.
As the plot unfolded, the Bag O’Nails represented a variety of locations across Great Britian and America, merit to lighting designer Kenneth Posner and projection designer Andrew Lazarow’s artistry. Lava-lamp and kaleidoscopic light projections underpinned the moods. In one scene set on the bow of a ship bound for England, projections recreated sunlight on waves. In “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am,” lyrics flashed on the walls to the song’s tempo.
Armed with a guitar, Jonny Amies’s Peter opened the show with a narrative scored to The Yardbird’s “For Your Love.” Born in Manchester, Class of 1997, Amies is a theatrical newcomer, with TV credits in the Netflix episodic, “Sex Education” at his back.
Here, Peter transformed from a love-struck self-deprecating teen to an international heartthrob, and merit to Amies, the transformation was convincing and graceful. For his second song, “I’m into Something Good,” Amies purposely sang in a tentative, restrained voice, but by the time he sang his fourth solo, “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” he was brilliant and confident, reflecting his secure rise to stardom. If Amies were an opera singer, he’d be a “tenore di grazia” – his voice was pleasant and resonant, with a lovely lyric tone. His presence was bright and buoyant, almost a Ferris Bueller-esque imp, in clean-cut menswear with a shaggy Beatles-mop cut to perfection. An honorable mention goes to Jen Perry, who played his no-nonsense mum, the matriarch who inspired him to give-up his career and rescue Pam, who had been sent to America by Fallon, and fell into the gritty drug scene.
About that girl. Erika Olson’s Pamela – a blond, mini-skirted talent – made a convincing “Helen of Troy” archetype. Like Amies, Olson was a fresh, versatile, charismatic presence onstage, and made a clear transformation from the headstrong firecracker to the burdened lost soul, merit to a deep vulnerability that she gave her character. The two were well-matched with natural chemistry during duets such as Herman’s Hermits’s “There’s a Kind of Hush All Over the World.” But Olson’s tour de force was The Animals’s “House of the Rising Sun,” her dark tale of Original Sin, sung with such tragedy and pathos that it bordered on a Requiem Mass.
Conor Ryan brought a raw vitality to the role of Trip, and mastered an expressive presence without even saying a word. Ryan had the Jaggeresque swagger down cold – rangy, muscled and broad-shouldered – with rings on his fingers, heeled boots, kohl eyeliner, and a wardrobe of utility-sourced jackets. Ryan didn’t need to change in this role: he was an avatar of the vain, self-centered bad boy rocker with just enough vanity to make him repellent – and he played it faithfully. Ryan’s voice was matched to his physicality – raw, vital, and versatile with a powerful range and a wicked falsetto, like in his Dave Clark Five’s “Can’t You See That She’s Mine” and Cilla Black’s “You’re My World.”
Elice’s story gave us a lot to unpack, but the takeaway was clear: life’s most rewarding adventures are about the journey, not the destination.
You might not get the happy ending you want, but as long as you go after your dreams with great vitality and a pure heart, you’ll have no regrets.
Like Peter said in his final scene, “It’s not what you say, it’s what you play.”
Jennifer Jones is an award-winning American performer. In 1987, she became the first African American Radio City Music Hall Rockette. For additional information, follow her on her website at www.rockettejenn.com, and on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter as @rockettejenn.