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We got to our seats in the fifth row early, so there was plenty of time for the accommodating and chatty usherette to smile and point to the young man in the first row and tell us that he was enough of a fan to have seen the show eight times with all the changes. She was pretty enthusiastic herself especially about the set. "If you think what you see is spectacular, wait until you see the set for the second act." Spectacular indeed, if you go for the cluttered kitsch of a high school gym that designer Heidy Ettinger has decorated to resemble a California beach side variety store, stocked with hanging water flotation devices, surf boards, a Gidget Goes Hawaiian poster, a stuffed sword fish, kites, buoy lines and . . . well, enough already.
Tempted as I was to go down to the first row and ask the young man if he thought the show had been improved over time, I decided it was more fun to watch him. His eyes remained glued to the stage despite it being empty of performers. Once the show began he proved to be as normal as apple pie, laughing, applauding the performers and obviously happy as a clam ogling a stage full of beautiful young bodies of both sexes that bounced, shook, shimmied and swayed almost non-stop to the din of more than thirty songs from the Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys canon. Now, anyone could tell watching the expression change on his face (granted, a side view) that he was not the least bit concerned with the plot that proved to be no more significant than any theme for a high school dance.
This gimmick-filled-song-propelled show was conceived and designed for generations of fans inclined to respond enthusiastically to this brand of catalogue-pandering nostalgia. Sadly it doesn't have the emotional audacity or revelatory dancing of Movin' Out, or the flagrantly delirious musicality that sparks Mamma Mia! Sadly for the Beach Boys fans and indeed, for the rest of us, Good Vibrations has been let down by a creative team that simply hasn't been very creative.
Let's concede that the casually dispersed and virtually dismissable plot wasn't meant to matter. However, I feel obliged to give the backdrop to the two hours of otherwise painless silliness.
Four seniors (presumably from New Jersey, where else?) decide to motor west to California rather than go to work. Bobby (David Larson), a slick comely operator, has duped Caroline (Kate Reinders), a pretty but brainy French Club president into believing he cares for her when what he and his friends are really after is her car. Smart Caroline is just dumb enough to have carried a torch for Bobby since their freshman year. To complete the westward bound quartet we have Eddy (Tituss Burgess) and. Bobby's best friend Dave (Brandon Wardel). Eddy l leaves his girl friend Marcella (Jessica-Snow Wilson) behind because she has a job) and Eddy does what side kicks always do … go along for the ride.
Along the route the foursome makes short stops at various song-and-dance friendly venues. Before the end of the first act Caroline gets wind of Bobby's trick and swears never to speak to him again. Now here is where the musical's real star turns up via the entr'acte curtain that Ettinger created to depict a huge curling wave through the eye of which we see the beach and shore.
The main setting for Act II is another eye-opener -- a shimmering blue sky that meets a row of dimensional waves to give the illusion of rolling into the shore. With Brian MacDevitt and Jason Lyon's atmospheric lighting getting a workout, Ettinger's setting gradually reflects the changes from dusk to night as the lights from a distant town begin to glow as abstract reflections fill the night sky giving some validity to the saying "I left humming the sets." Once in Surf City, the four travelers make lots of friends. All have the prerequisite washboard stomachs and curvaceous contours. Costume designer Jess Goldstein surely had no difficulty fitting anyone in the company for the fashion parade of hot-colored bikinis, Hawaiian trunks, and body-clinging shorts. If the plot seems to have been washed away on a wave, not to worry. The kids either sing solo, in pairs or in groups, mostly leading into all sorts of frantically devised configurations (for example, riding skate boards over the surf and crashing bumper cars) to embellish (or rather diminish) some of the immortal gems. Of, course the plot eventually surfs back so that Caroline can make up with Bobby, Marcella catch up with Eddy and Dave, who has never learned to swim, will end up with an amiable long-haired surfer named Jan (Sebastian Arcelus who has an impressive voice).
Except for an amusing dance atop surf boards and a limp Texas-style line dance John Carrafa's choreography, unlike his work in Urinetown and Into the Woods, is mostly repetitive. His novice directing is not helped by Richard Dresser's imbecilic book.
As for the performers, E. Jesse Nager was the one dancer in the pack who stood out with his extraordinary leaps, jumps and gymnastic prowess. The acting was for the most part purposely naïve and the singing perfunctory. However, the bald-headed Burgess, making his Broadway debut, always managed to fuel every pedestrian moment and song with his robust voice and his consistently winning personality and presence. He deserves a better musical. You can view the petite and perky Reinders as a Christine Chenoweth clone without the coloratura. Her best musical moment is "In My Room," a song that speaks of her character's loneliness and the loneliness of all teenagers.
One thing that has to be said in this show's favor is its complete avoidance of four-letter words, drugs, or sexual situations. No one even smokes a cigarette. If only this put it on a planet where you could get high on its cleverness, originality and great renderings of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys' music.
Editor's Note: I saw Good Vibrations the same night that Simon Saltzman reviewed it. Not being a die-hard Beach Boys fan I thought it would vibrate better with him. As it turns out, the show needs more enthusiasts like that young man who was there for visit number 8, rather than critics who yearn for a real musical instead of an ill-conceived spin on one band's song catalogue. In case you're wondering about Richard Dresser's more commendable playwriting efforts, see my review of Gun-Shy and Rounding Third. -- e.s.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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