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Rascals' reunion dreams come true with new theater show
"A miracle" is the most common term associated with the Rascals' "Once Upon a Dream" stage show.
It's what each of the four band members use to describe the experience, which has reunited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group on stage for the first time in more than 40 years to play seminal hits such as "Good Lovin'," "Groovin'," "People Got To Be Free," "A Beautiful Morning" and more. It's also how creator Steven Van Zandt -- the E Street Band guitarist and onetime star of "The Sopranos" who co-produced and co-directed the production with his wife Maureen -- refers to it, and the same word tends to crop up in reviews for the show, too -- the vast majority of which have been raves.
And now the Rascals, apart for all those years after an acrimonious end in 1972, are -- miraculously -- an active, going concern again with a hot show and prospects for the future.
"It's better than ever," gushes singer Eddie Brigati, 68, a Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee along with Rascals keyboardist-singer Felix Cavaliere. "It's higher than anything I ever dreamed of. We're kind of in awe of ourselves, if that's possible."
Cavaliere, 70, adds that, "It's pretty interesting, I can tell you that. It's been a long time coming and here it is and we're just trying to make the best of it. The audience is having a really good time, and it's amazing to see the joy that his music and this show brings to people -- and to us."
And Van Zandt, who Brigati calls "a real Rascalphile," sounds like a proud papa not only for the show's success, including a run on Broadway, but also because one of his very favorite bands, which formed as the Young Rascals during 1965 in New Jersey, is back together again.
"I was first called to reunite them in 1982 and have been more or less trying ever since, every few years," explains Van Zandt, 62, who inducted the Rascals into the Rock Hall in 1997. Drummer Dino Danelli was also part of the first incarnation of Van Zandt's Disciples of Soul band. "It was a challenge. It had developed into a lot of bad blood. But if you asked them why they broke up, there's not any one major incident -- which was good. It was just a matter of, through the years, lawsuits began over who (owned) the name, all that stupid, stupid stuff.
"So it took awhile to get them back in the same room -- and I think it took an artistic reason for them to come back together."
Van Zandt first succeeded in reuniting the Rascals for an April 2010 benefit for the Kristen Ann Carr Fund in New York City, where he and fellow Rascalphile Bruce Springsteen joined the band onstage for "Good Lovin'." And, says guitarist Gene Cornish, the band "had such a great time doing a one-hour show, and we got along so well and we enjoyed playing the music so much, we said (to Van Zandt), 'If you can come up with a concept, we'd be interested in doing it.' "
Van Zandt went to work and after two years and "about 30 drafts" came up with a winner. He calls "Once Upon a Dream," named after the group's landmark 1968 album, a "hybrid show," blending the Rascals' live performance mixed with visual footage both vintage and new, including new Rascals interviews and dramatized events from the group's history, with young actors playing the band members.
"It's like 'Jersey Boys' with the Four Seasons in it -- the real guys playing their music," Van Zandt says of the show, which opened during December in Port Chester, N.Y. and the moved to Broadway's Richard Rogers Theatre in April, with a return set for December following its current North American tour. "It's a concert, but it's a lot more than a concert. It really is halfway to a Broadway show in the sense that we are truly transporting people back to the 60s for two hours and creating this environment and giving these songs a context and telling their story.
"There's a lot going on, and that's what (the Rascals) wanted. They're very idealistic guys. They knew they had something special in the 60s, those five years they were together, and they didn't want to tarnish it or dilute it. They did not want to do an oldies show or go on the oldies circuit. They wanted to do something unique and different, and I happened to come up with the right thing."
Cornish, 69, confirms that he and his bandmates "needed the right motivation. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were thrown at us over the last 40 years, and that wasn't the motivation." Adds drummer Danelli, 69, "We were never interested in a regular band reunion 'cause it would just be playing the same songs over and over again in the same way. It just didn't really interest us that much. This idea was a whole, unique approach."
There were concerns, however. "We really didn't know if this would work," Danelli says. "It's a big production. It's two and a half hours long now; that's a lot. So we weren't sure if people would sit through it, but they are. And they're coming back two and three times to see it. From the very first night it worked like a charm, so we're just going with it."
Now the future for the show, and the Rascals, seems wide open. A "Once Upon a Dream" album and DVD are being discussed, while Van Zandt envisions a "next phase" of "making it more into the 'Jersey Boys' type of show," with actors portraying the Rascals. And now that the group is back together, there may be prospects for more Rascals music in the future -- though the group members are proceeding cautiously in that direction.
"We haven't really gotten that far yet," says Cavaliere, who was approached to write a rock 'n' roll Broadway musical during the late 60s that never panned out. He currently resides in Nashville and is still actively recording songwriting -- and, Cavaliere acknowledges, some of the material would certainly suit the band.
"It's almost inevitable that you do that because that type of style is so ingrained in me," he says. "It's the same for the other guys. But we don't really know what's going to happen. If somebody comes along with a proposal, like (Van Zandt) did with this show, we'll take it from there."
Brigati, however, is more optimistic. "Inevitably, if we stay focused on this project it'll be a footing on a brand new foundation," he says. "It's never been at this level before. I've never stopped writing. So if this goes to the next level -- which it should and I hope it does -- you'll be hearing more from us, I'm sure."
The Rascals' perform "Once Upon a Dream" at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 15, at the Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $40-$150. Call 313-471-6611 or visit www.olympiaentertainment.com.
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