In the 40 years since The Rascals disbanded, the band's name has sort of grown a paunch. These days, it's more associated with a brand of motorized wheelchair than a pioneering group of musicians.
Well the original Rascals are back — and on Broadway, no less — to prove that grandpa can still rock out.
During a two-hour concert at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, the four — Felix Cavaliere on keyboard and vocals, singer Eddie Brigati, drummer Dino Danelli and guitarist Gene Cornish — seem to have taken musical Viagra.
Brigati gleefully smashed two tambourines against his thigh and Cornish playfully threw guitar picks into the crowd. These pioneers of blue-eyed soul were having fun and that became infectious.
The show is part of a 15-concert stand and combines live performance, video reenactments, archival concert, op-art backdrops and psychedelic lighting. Steven Van Zandt, the guitarist for Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, shares directing duties with visual designer Marc Brickman.
The band, only reuniting recently under Van Zandt's careful prodding, prove to have a deep and rich catalog including the hits "It's a Beautiful Morning," "How Can I Be Sure," "People Got to Be Free" and "I've Been Lonely Too Long." They breeze through 30 songs that span rockabilly, funk, blues, soul and psychedelic. Three backup singers, a bassist and extra keyboardist round out the sound.
They kicked it off with "Once Upon a Dream" and smartly made the crowd wait a full hour before giving them what they ached for — "Good Lovin,'" which brought everyone to their feet. The band could have ended it there — leaving plenty of time for fans to snap up $65 hoodies and $30 T-shirts — but kept going.
The music is periodically interrupted by filmed footage of the bandmates talking about how they met in the 60s, worked together, withstood the British invasion and then broke up by the early 1970s. ("It all went dark," they say as the toll of mismanagement, drugs and infighting took their toll. "We missed the 70s. And the 80s. And the 90s."
There are a few cute scenes with actors playing the younger versions of the middle-aged men onstage. But there's precious little concert footage of the four back when they were prowling the New York-New Jersey club scene. Nor are there any ad-lib remarks, just recorded ones.
The projections aren't universally awesome — sometimes there's nothing on the massive 50-foot-by-25-foot LED back screen. Sometimes it's hazy `60s babes bouncing about, or cartoons, or what looks like an octopus eating its young. And lots and lots of blooming flowers. Their outfits are mostly suit pants and flower-pattered shirts under vests. Brigati bravely topped his outfit with a matching scarf.
But it's the music that rightly stands out and The Rascals prove they were more than just a few hits. Songs like "Too Many Fish in the Sea," "If You Knew" and "Hold On" show their range. The voices of Brigati and Cavaliere are still strong even if they no longer have the roundness of youth. That matters little — it's just nice to see everyone groovin.'
Brigati has perhaps the best line in the show. Just before the band had a big break, he was involved in a serious car accident. Still badly injured, his bandmates dragged him to work and he miraculously recovered. "Any good band is kind of a miracle, right?" he muses.
It’s hard to know what to call the new Broadway show about the classic ’60s band The Rascals, opening under the name “Once Upon a Dream.”
Is it a concert? A play? A self-tribute? An amazing simulation? Or just a really long episode of “Behind the Music”?
Luckily for fans of the band, there’s precious little of the latter four elements and a heaping helping of the first one.
For most of the two-hour show, fans can bask in the first full performance by this pioneering, New Jersey-born, blue-eyed-soul band in 40 long years. Better, the years have only heightened the guys’ instrumental chops.
The not-so-young Rascals plowed through undying hits like “Groovin’,” “Good Lovin’ ” and “People Got To Be Free” with equal parts power and finesse. Jazz-inflected drummer Dino Danelli never sounded more forceful, while guitarist Gene Cornish elaborated his original rockabilly-laced licks, adding fresh flourishes and solos as he went.
Singer Eddie Brigati may have had to strain for some notes, but the more frequent front man Felix Cavaliere sounded just as pure and soulful as he did in 1966.
To awkwardly break up the hits, the show features a Frankenstein-like mishmash of elements. There’s video of the members talking today about the old days, scrapbook-style footage of them in their day-glo heyday, plus wooden reenactments by young actors in terrible wigs.
Their dialogue, penned by producer Steven Van Zandt, doesn’t miss a ’60s cliche. And instead of being honest about the group’s nasty breakup in 1970, there’s an explanation tacked onto the end so laughably vague it sounds like it was drafted by lawyers.
Luckily, the play isn’t the thing here. The music is, and it never sounded better.
Right now on Broadway, you can see a fake Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons or ersatz versions of Motown’s Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye.
Or, you can see the former Young Rascals — the real ones.
They’re not kids anymore — they dropped the “Young” by 1968 — but they sound as great as ever. Marking their first public performances together in more than four decades are Felix Cavaliere (vocals, keyboards), Gene Cornish (guitar), Dino Danelli (drums) and singer Eddie Brigati, whose “The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream” opened last night on Broadway. Lovingly written and co-directed by E Street Band member and “Sopranos” star Steven Van Zandt, it had delirious baby boomers literally dancing in their seats.
The original quartet imploded in 1970 when Brigati left the band. But not before they produced “Groovin’,” “Good Lovin’,” “How Can I Be Sure,” “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long,” “A Beautiful Morning” and “People Got To Be Free,” which dominated the charts through the ’60s — New Jersey’s answer to the British invasion.
Though it features 28 (uncut) songs, “The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream” is more than a concert. It’s also a theatrical piece that tells the band’s story using filmed interviews, archival footage and cinematic re-creations with actors playing the bandmates’ younger selves. That last part is a bit cheesy; not so the trippy projections by Marc Brickman, who once did Pink Floyd’s.
The fun begins with a preshow announcement telling us to feel free to take pictures, use cellphones and generally “do whatever the f - - k you want.” When the band takes the stage, with Cavaliere and Danelli on risers, the image is both exhilarating and jarring — exhilarating because no one thought they would ever perform together in public again, jarring because, well, they look far from young.
But any reservations end when the music begins. Cavaliere’s voice has lost none of its soul, and Cornish’s blistering guitar solos sound ripped from a garage band. Danelli pounds his drums with swinging precision, while Brigati sings and dances like a blissed-out teenager.
Why did they break up? They themselves don’t really know. But here they are, decades later — virtually the only band of their stature with its membership intact. If you grew up with the Rascals, this is a show you can’t miss.
Sometimes, breaking new ground has its disadvantages.
Because "The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream" is the first "BioConcert" -- a term its writer and producer Steven Van Zandt coined to describe the combination of biography and rock concert -- it takes some time to get used to it. The Rascals -- singer Eddie Brigati, singer-organist Felix Cavaliere, guitarist Gene Cornish and drummer Dino Danelli -- perform live, but they also tell the band's story by talking directly to the audience through videos shown on a big screen behind them. There also are videos where actors dramatize pivotal moments in the band's career, while Van Zandt's friend Vincent Pastore narrates.
It's disconcerting at first, especially on opening night, when sound issues made it difficult to hear Brigati sing the first two songs. Once it gets going, though, the heart of The Rascals' story and, more importantly, their music, starts to win out.
By the time the band reaches its breakthrough hit, "Good Lovin', " about halfway through, those in the audience were ready to party, up and out of their seats, singing along with Cavaliere. It's a moment of triumph both on-screen and off. In the video, the band has landed a No. 1 after being discovered by promoter Sid Bernstein at the East End club The Barge, where they became the house band. In real life, hearing the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers perform their classic after not playing a concert together in more than four decades is also a thrill.
That's followed, though, by a second half where the two halves of the show start to work against each other. While the band starts to get stronger, with Cavaliere knocking out one soulful vocal after another and Brigati offering a showstopping version of "How Can I Be Sure," the story starts to weaken.
The band glosses over its breakup and its separation since 1970, offering only vague explanations involving drugs and the bitter competition of the music business. Rather than avoiding the real story, "Once Upon a Dream" would have been better off just sticking to the music, especially when The Rascals were entering their strongest period, marked by social activism and the classic "People Got to Be Free."
A reunion of The Rascals would have been great. A musical about their career could also be great. The pieces of "Once Upon a Dream" are all pretty good. However, there are just too many of them at times, and they don't always fit together the way they should. That said, hearing Cavaliere sing makes a lot of these issues forgivable.
It's an unlikely plot for a Broadway musical: A famous musician yearns to reunite the band he loved as a kid, and succeeds, bringing his heroes together for their first concert series in 40 years.
Actually, that's just the story behind The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream (*** out of four), which began a 15-performance run at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Monday (and officially opened Tuesday). Renowned guitarist and sometime actor Steven Van Zandt, who wrote, co-directed and co-produced Dream, never appears in it. His name isn't even mentioned, though his longtime colleague Bruce Springsteen comes up briefly.
But Van Zandt's reverence for The Rascals, shared by fellow artists and rock pundits, and his affection for the four men, who formed the New Jersey-based group in the early '60s, permeate the show.
Those men are in their late 60s and 70s now, a fact that is hardly glossed over. Neither a jukebox musical nor a straightforward concert along the lines of last fall's Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons on Broadway, Dream shifts from live performances to video clips, shown on a single large screen behind the band, in which the members — keyboardist/vocalist Felix Cavaliere, singer Eddie Brigati, drummer Dino Danelli and guitarist Gene Cornish — reminisce about their history together, and the people and events that informed it.
Some of those events are re-enacted in cheeky video segments in which actors play the young Rascals, posing a sharp contrast to the lined faces we see when the musicians are talking. (Vincent Pastore, who appeared with Van Zandt in The Sopranos, turns up as a narrator, embellishing their comments in a Noo Yawk accent that reinforces the band's regional, working-class roots.)
Those lines fade, though, when the men pick up their instruments and sing. Supported by bassist/music director Mark Prentice, keyboardist Mark Alexander and a trio of backup vocalists, they run through beloved hits such as You Better Run, How Can I Be Sure, Groovin', A Beautiful Morning and People Got to Be Free with the playful zeal of children rediscovering a favorite old toy.
Such tunes remind us of the unique niche that The Rascals occupied as an American rock band whose soulful tunes drew heavily on R&B while rivaling the raw esprit of the groups who led the British invasion on the pop charts. Co-director and production designer Marc Brickman enhances the good vibes with a dizzying array of sensual psychedelic images, a number of them incorporating slinky dancing girls.
The mood turns more sober toward the end, as Vietnam and the civil rights struggle are evoked. The actors cast as the younger Rascals return on screen to reassess, rather melodramatically, their split in the early '70s. "We were innocent," intones Peter Evangelista, as Brigati.
But then the music kicks in again, bringing the audience to its feet — and giving Van Zandt's unconventional love story the happy ending it deserves.