If you’re of the generation who’s never heard of the Rascals, you might be forgiven. Best known for the sweet, blue-eyed soul of ”Groovin’,” the sunny, bluebird-on-my-shoulder pop of ”A Beautiful Morning,” a wild-rocking cover of ”Good Lovin’,” and other hits of the mid-to-late 1960s, these Jersey boys grew up playing in the same clubs as a very young, still-rocking-a-pompadour Jimi Hendrix. In their early days, they even got the Beatles to open for them. But they never really got their due as one of the great classic rock bands until 1997, when Sopranos star and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt fought to get them inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream is Van Zandt’s baby. He directed it, along with Marc Brickman, and wrote the book himself. A longtime fan — he regularly plays the Rascals on his radio show, Little Steven’s Underground Garage — Van Zandt has been trying to get founding members Felix Cavaliere, Eddie Brigati, Dino Danelli, and Gene Cornish back together for years. So it makes sense that this show feels more like a reunion concert than a musical. All four original members play live on stage for 28 full songs. (In the production notes, Van Zandt calls it ”the most comprehensive concert they’ve ever done.”) Luckily, the music still sounds fantastic. Singer Brigati’s high notes might be a little strained, but frontman Cavaliere still croons with a voice as clear and soulful as it sounds on vinyl. Danelli’s puts real force into his jazzy drumming. And you can tell that Cornish is having the best time ever, mugging for the crowd with his rockabilly-inspired guitar solos. They got three standing ovations the night I saw the show, and a few brave souls danced in the aisles. One woman stood up in her seat, waving her arms to the music, even though one of them was in a sling around her neck. These people had been waiting 40 long years to see the Rascals — and you could tell.
Still, it’s hard to understand why the Rascals didn’t just take this ”most comprehensive concert” on tour. Though Van Zandt clearly loves the band, he didn’t do them any favors with the narrative part of the show. The songs are intercut with film footage, some featuring actors (like the Sopranos‘ Vincent Pastore) playing stock scenes from the musicians’ pasts that could’ve been taken from any band’s backstory. Other scenes include interviews with the band members that are so stiff, you can practically see their eyes darting back and forth across the cue cards. The monologues are filled with clichés (”One day I was the kid looking in, and the next day I was on stage!” ”We started stretching our wings — you know, musically — to see how high we could fly”) and terrible, elbow-to-the-ribs barbs about how Jersey guys are just so crazy. A conversation about the British Invasion is capped off with a groaner of a punchline: ”The British were coming, alright. Where was Paul Revere when you needed him?”
One wonders why Van Zandt chose to write their dialogue for them. Surely, if he’d just let the Rascals tell their own stories, he would’ve come back with some wild tales of Summer of Love after parties and the Civil Rights marches they supported. No one even tries to explain the drama behind why the band broke up. In the end, their story doesn’t sound much different from any other band you’d see on Behind the Music. Jersey boys — maybe they’re not so crazy after all. Sad. For the music: A? For the musical: C? Overall: B?
(Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 800-653-8000)