What a beautiful reunion: The Rascals revisit their hits in new stage show

Brickman (left) with David Gilmour on a late-'80s Pink Floyd tour.
Brickman (left) with David Gilmour on a late-'80s Pink Floyd tour.
Posted: June 05, 2013

HAVE YOU heard? The other Jersey boys - the once "Young" and forever Rascals - are together again, reliving the blue-eyed-soul glory days of "Groovin'," "Good Lovin'," "I've Been Lonely Too Long" and "People Got to Be Free" with a sensory-bombarding, period-capturing show called "The Rascals - Once Upon a Dream."

Torn asunder by internal strife, it took decades of gentle goading and diplomacy by one of their biggest home-state fans - ace E Street Band guitarist, actor and now "Once Upon a Dream" scripter/producer Steve Van Zandt - to get the group back together.

And a couple of Philly locals - co-director/scenic designer Marc Brickman and national tour producer Larry Magid - have done yeoman's work to fire up the Rascals reunion, celebrating tonight, tomorrow and Saturday at the Academy of Music. They'll also appear on the televised Tony Awards Sunday.

"Google the names 'Van Zandt and the Rascals' " to relive the 1997 night that first sparked the project, suggested Brickman in a recent chat. Up pops a YouTube video of the turbaned Van Zandt inducting the Rascals into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with punchy lines like, "In the center of the Universe, New Jersey, the Rascals were the first rock band."

Equally hyperbolic, yet clearly sincere, was his proclamation, "People talk about white soul singers and a lot of names come up. They were the best. With all due respect to the Righteous Brothers - they are fantastic. But [Rascals] Eddie [Brigati] and Felix [Cavaliere] . . . to sound that black, you had to be Italian."

That amusing and impassioned induction raised roars and finally got this long-estranged band talking again, with Van Zandt as the peace broker "dealing with each of the guys individually, rather than putting them all in a room together," said Brickman. The spiel also caught the attention of writer/producer David Chase, who was so taken by Van Zandt's cocky attytood that he offered the musician an acting role in "The Sopranos."

"The band jokes that 'Once Upon a Dream' is their payback," shared Brickman, now shepherding the Rascals' national tour while Van Zandt's off on the latest world romp with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

A 'charmed life'

In the treatment that Van Zandt developed over the course of a decade, the band is onstage through the night, playing their dozen big hits plus lesser knowns that demonstrate the guys' depth.

Behind them looms a giant LED video screen, Brickman's domain, blasting historic clips, psychedelicized light-show effects plus short scenes with actors playing the guys in their prime.

Brickman has been dazzling us for decades in his "charmed life" as a visual designer.

We first caught wind of this Philly native and Central High grad as a wunderkind of 19, working (and later co-owning) the Vine Street-based MacAvoy Lighting Co. One momentous 1971 night at a Widener College concert, his life changed forever when the "guy who normally called the light cues for the headlining band [their then-manager Mike Appel] let me take over for a couple of songs, and I went crazy pounding the lights in rhythm to the music."

The band was an equally scrappy young group called Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and they dug Brickman's dramatic enhancements so much, he became their primo lighting guy for almost a decade, until "an unfortunate miscommunication and falling out just before the 'Born in the USA' tour," Brickman recalled.

From there, Brickman would move on to Genesis (innovating with the first large-scale, moving LED screen backdrops), Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney and Keith Urban, as well as the opening ceremonies for the Barcelona and Nagano Olympics and holiday light shows splayed on the Empire State Building.

Another Brickman in 'The Wall'

Highest profile and most prestigious of Brickman's gigs is his still hot and happening, 20-plus-year relationship with Pink Floyd, the absolute titans of eye-popping concert production, which started with the original staging of "The Wall." Brickman also illuminates the grandiose solo tours for Floyd's Dave Gilmour and Roger Waters, "living a very privileged, tilted life where any fantasy I could imagine - even using military grade 'Star Wars' lasers - is OK to pursue."

Yet despite these impressive credentials, the Rascals' huge catalog of hits and the very real chance that their show could become the next "Jersey Boys," stage producers were reluctant to touch the project. They dismissed the Rascals as "an oldies band," Brickman shared. "So we took matters in our own hands, with a little help from Kickstarter."

The crowd-sourcing gambit raised $130,000 in seed money to help bring "Once Upon a Dream" to the Capitol Theatre, in Port Chester, N.Y., last December, where Brickman had been working on major innovations. Van Zandt and his wife and manager, Maureen, also threw in beaucoup bucks, we hear.

Then, on the last night of the run, Philadelphia-based concert promoter and stage-show producer Magid decided to check out the show with his stage-show producing buddy Scott Zeiger, and they "got it," recalls Magid.

The producers decided to take the show to Broadway for what would be a three-week, sold-out run - explaining the Rascals' placement on the Tony Awards show Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBS3 - then on to a nation tour.

"The response at the Capitol was really overwhelming," recalled Magid, who also brought Billy Crystal and Bette Midler to Broadway and is now working with Zeiger and writer/director Barry Levinson on the musical adaptation of the latter's film "Diner."

Magid's view

"Bill Murray was in the audience that night and he sang along on every song," Magid recalled of the Capitol show. "The crowd reaction was very enthusiastic. . . . The story you'll see on the stage is really the story of the 1960s. The cultural revolution has parallel lines to the band.

"Looking back, the Rascals were very underrated when the new era of rock came in," Magid said. "They were saying the same thing but in their voice, a pop voice, with songs like 'People Got to Be Free.' They were trivialized because of that, because they were a white band playing R&B, and a little flashy. If they had been able to persevere and stick it out, I think they'd be up there with any group you can think of."

And today?

"The band still sings and plays well," swears this veteran concert promoter, who's seen and heard them all. "So, it's a powerful performance with a great message. And this show has the best lighting and video-projection presentation I've ever seen. It has the essence of rawness of that era, capturing the period, telling their backstory, how the band become successful, how you get swept up in it, what the pitfalls are.

"Every aspiring person who's thought about going into the music business should go see it. I'm still learning from it, and I've now watched the show many times."

"The Rascals - Once Upon a Dream," Academy of Music, Broad and Locust streets, 7:30 p.m. today and tomorrow, 8 p.m. Saturday, $24-$204 (VIP), 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org.

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