Victory Gardens Theater

In Get Ready the characters–a 60s R&B quintet hoping to make a 90s comeback–never talk about the music they make. They don’t have to: the music itself talks up a storm. Early in the first act there’s a glorious scene in which these middle-aged former “ambassadors of soul” sing together after 20 years. The joy of crooning the cream out of “I Got to Get to Know Her” and breaking into the choreographed gestures and synchronized steps of 60s guy groups doesn’t just restore their youth–it pumps up the audience into a fine frenzy.

In The Sunshine Boys Neil Simon reunited two curmudgeonly vaudeville comics, feuding ex-partners forced to get their act together one last time. In Get Ready, a rollicking Victory Gardens world premiere, Chicagoans Jaye Stewart and Joe Plummer affectionately reunite the Doves, five guys who never expected to make a career out of what was for them a pleasure. But like the real-life Temptations, the Dells, and the Manhattans, at one time they hit the top.

The Doves’ dance captain and manager is acid-tongued, tough-loving Knobby; the Doves themselves are rambunctious, womanizing Johnson, superstitious, ever-hungry Bunch, one-eyed Frankie (whose angry girlfriend stole his false eye), wise, practical Vern, and the troublemaker, lead singer Roscoe. Their golden oldies–love ballads they warbled with sexy struts and killer smiles–are back on the charts, and so despite various mid-life crises, the Doves are ready to fly again. But they must set aside hard memories of racial prejudice and, much harder, heal old wounds among themselves.

Much of the script–a bit too much–deals with the group’s unresolved bad feelings. (As old resentments erupt, Knobby dryly remarks that they should call themselves the Frustrations.) Real harm threatens when the temperamental Roscoe, influenced by his control-freak wife Eva–who earlier had split up the group because they didn’t respect her–decides to go solo, thus threatening to break up the group again. It takes a ton of negotiation between smooth Knobby and seething Eva and some burlesque-style spats between husband and wife (“I need some space from you”–“How does six feet sound?”) before the path is cleared for a comeback concert.

Spicing up the familiar plot is vintage music-hall patter, insults like “You got more nerve than an impacted wisdom tooth,” and “He wouldn’t give a crippled crab a crutch.” In Dennis Zacek’s staging, that crisp byplay feels as natural as improv. But the second act slows the fun, dragging out the melodramatic complications–even the acting begins to chase its tail, becoming repetitious.

More winning than the ripe old story and cunningly contrasted characters is the homage music maker Plummer pays to the songs of the 60s (the lyrics are by Stewart, Plummer, and Debi Stewart). Though some songs are no more than intriguing fragments, overall they really sell the show. Performed in four-part harmony or as full-throttle boogies, rousers like “Love on Your Side” and “Flirt” capture the zest that created the R&B crossover hits 30 years ago.

The cast are worth their weight in Grammys. W. Allen Taylor as knowing Knobby gives his one-liners comic depth charges, John Steven Crowley as adipose Bunch grabs a ton of laughs just devouring a sandwich, and Kenn E. Head, Rick Worthy, and Allan Louis play the most dedicated Doves with contagious fervor.

The misogynistically conceived Eva resembles both Yoko Ono and Eve–she nearly ruins the men’s musical Eden. Laura Walls plays this spitfire with too much aimless strutting and too many pregnant pauses, but when she launches into the soul-stirring solo that’s the first-act finale, “Is There a Heaven for Folks With the Blues,” she creates a musical heaven. Danne E. Reese as Roscoe, whose ambition is paint-by-numbers stuff, charms big-time with the anthem “Everything Must Change.” In a nicely conceived role, Trent Harrison Smith plays an awestruck rapper who registers the audience’s pleasure as he becomes a convert to the smooth tones of classic R&B.

James Dardenne’s set–a battered rehearsal hall that resembles Victory Gardens’ home of 20 years ago, now Metro–is as weathered as the characters. Todd Hensley’s lighting supplies the required show-business allure.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.