Anyone craving an evening of 80s nostalgia will find much to enjoy in The Next Big Thing, a new musical just opened at the art/Works Theatre. Like Pretty In Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Can’t Buy Me Love, The Next Big Thing features a cast of energetic, attractive teens (or more precisely 20somethings passing as teens) with dreams to fulfill, and adults who occasionally get in their way.

A newly purchased Yamaha DX7 (the synthesizer which helped create the 80s pop sound) convinces Chip (Brandon Ruckdashel) to invite nerdy/geeky best friends Robert (Jason Director) and Mickey (Mike Thompson) to start a band in (where else?) his family’s garage. It’s easy for Chip to convince his two buddies to join him in his quest for pop stardom despite the fact that neither has played an instrument before.  “These machines practically play themselves,” he tells them.  Besides, “Girls want musicians. You want girls?  Let’s make a band!”

Much less happy about the path Chip has chosen is his mom Melissa (Missy Gibson), a one-time would-be rock singer who is not at all thrilled about having a DX7 in her garage. “The synthesizer is a waste of time,” she tells Chip.  “Didn’t I teach you about integrity?”  

However, as any John Hughes fan knows, no teen in his right mind will listen to a grownup’s advice, and quick as you can say “garage band,” Chip, Robert, and Mickey have built a song from scratch (complete with catchy hooks and chord changes).  “We’re rock stars!” they declare joyously.  “We’re gonna get chicks!”

A quest for a girl lead singer is going nowhere until pert, pretty Kim (Matisha Baldwin) arrives and wows the boys with an a cappella rendition of “Happy Birthday To You,” and soon the band is playing bar mitzvahs and 50th anniversary parties. Still, these gigs are small potatoes for a band that dreams big, and what could be better than to be invited to perform at popular rich girl Cyndi’s yearly bash, an honor that usually goes to Top 10 hit-makers and not unknowns like Chip and the gang?

Getting invited to star at Cyndi’s party is not Chip’s only hurdle to pop stardom. There’s also the resistance of his mom, who as a teenager won a TV talent competition only to have her father nip her dreams in the bud. Now she wants to do the same to Chip’s dreams, if only she can find a way to stop him.

The Next Big Thing, ably directed by Rachel Maize and Jeff Favre, is at its best (and most engaging) whenever it focuses on Chip and the band.  

To begin with, Chip is played by the oh so charismatic Ruckdashel, who made a stellar L.A. debut last year in the West Coast Premiere of Twist, and proves here that he is no one hit wonder.  Ruckdashel’s boy next door good looks and charm are spiced with a devilish gleam in the eyes, sure to make him the object of many a teen’s fancy. That he has a record contract-ready singing voice and acting chops to boot are icing on the cake.

Chip’s bandmates are equally appealing.  Director and Thompson have the teen nerd act down pat, and their eagerness and enthusiasm are contagious. Baldwin’s looks and voice recall a 80s Janet Jackson, adding credibility to Kim’s ultimate pop stardom.  (Oops, did I give something away?)  Belling is a delight as millionaire daddy’s girl Cyndi, and delivered a great in-character adlib when an overhead light exploded on opening night.

The band’s songs (with music and lyrics by Gibson and music director Mike Flanagan) are catchy each and every one of them, and with the guys performing live on synthesizer, electric guitar, and electronic drums, the music has an infectious energy.

Favre’s book sparkles whenever the band is center stage. Less successful are scenes revolving around mom, her lesbian best friend Mary Lou (Ellen D. Williams), and former boyfriend turned rock mogul Tom (Curt Bonnem).  Songs sung to recorded tracks lack the excitement of the live numbers, and the songs-as-dialog seem somehow out of place here.  I could have done with less of Mom’s subplot with Tom and the bit of Beaches/Terms Of Endearment soap near the end and gladly spent more time with the kids.

Still, no fault can be found with Gibson’s passionate vocals, sung in a raspy voice which recalls “Total Eclipse Of The Heart”’s Bonnie Tyler. Bonnem does his usual fine work as the slick and successful Tom, and Williams sings the evening’s most powerful number, “Because Of You,” in a gloriously rich voice. 

The Next Big Thing is jam-packed with 80s references. Mickey is counting the days till the opening of Return Of The Jedi and wears Empire Strikes Back t-shirts. Names like Charlene Tilton and Bonnie Franklin are casually dropped, and the arts/Works walls are filled with 80s memorabilia—record jackets, movie posters, and photos galore. 

Set designer Davis Campbell has transformed the stage into a realistic facsimile of an 80s Chicago garage, and Sherell Martin’s fantastic costumes not only recall an era, but have been carefully picked to fit each character’s logical choice of wardrobe.  (Ruckdashel’s Miami Vice jackets, sleeves and collars up, of course, and Belling’s flared mini-skirts, bustiers, and leggings are particularly nostalgia-inducing.) Matt Richter’s lighting is just fine, and survived the exploding bulb intact.

With more emphasis on the kids (and live music) and less on the grownups (and prerecorded tracks), The Next Big Thing has the potential of being a real cult hit.  

art/works Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
July 19, 2008

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