We're not looking for depth, but a minimum amount of "Fun, Fun, Fun," would have been nice in "Good Vibrations," the bland new jukebox musical overloaded with more than 30 songs from the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson.
As it is, the show, which opened Wednesday at Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre, proves that pop classics alone can't make musical theater - especially when accompanied by a sketchy, almost nonexistent plot, lame wit and meager character development.
The show obviously takes as its inspiration "Mamma Mia!" However, the ABBA megahit musical has a story line that seems like "Long Day's Journey into Night" compared to what author Richard Dresser and director-choreographer John Carrafa have come up with here.
"Good Vibrations," vaguely set somewhere in the 1960s, focuses on Bobby, "the coolest dude in the senior class," and his two best buddies. After high school graduation, the three journey from the boring East Coast to the fabled land of Southern California where, as an older, wiser Bobby recalls, "the girls were beautiful, the guys were cool, everybody surfed, it was always summertime and you never had to grow up."
Bobby's two friends (Tituss Burgess and Brandon Wardell) appear almost as afterthoughts, although Burgess gets to deliver a rousing duet of "Sail on Sailor" with David Reiser, and Wardell gets to show a little emotion in a fleeting gay subplot.
Add a bit of rocky romantic entanglement between Bobby (David Larsen) and a prim, yet smart young lady (Kate Reinders), who blossoms in the California sun, and you pretty much have the story.
There is a desperate quality to "Good Vibrations" with its insistence on cramming as many numbers as possible into the show. The cast of energetic young folk works frantically to deliver these songs, which include just about every big Beach Boys hit. Among the golden oldies: "I Get Around," "Don't Worry Baby," "Surf City," "Be True to Your School," "Surfin' USA," "California Girls," "Surfer Girl," "Sloop John B" and "Help Me, Rhonda."
Yet after a while, as good as the songs are, they begin to sound alike. That's because they often are delivered in the cheerfully anonymous manner of a cruise-ship revue. And, despite the obvious miking, many of the lyrics are lost.
The performers exude an all-American geniality that doesn't allow for much quirkiness or individuality. Reinders comes off best, displaying a perky manner and comic timing not undone by Dresser's dim tale.
Carrafa's choreography is athletic at best - lots of arm-waving, accompanied by some serious hip-swiveling.
The Beach Boys catalog of songs celebrated a particular time and place. Not much of that comes through in "Good Vibrations," although designer Heidi Ettinger's bright, primary-color settings suggest the perpetual sunshine that should infuse the evening.
In the late 1960s and 1970s after the success of "Hair," Broadway suffered through a series of awful rock musicals. Now, after the "Mamma Mia!" explosion, we are fearfully bracing for more evenings of pop songs put to work in musical theater.
"Good Vibrations" is only the first. "All Shook Up," using the songs of Elvis Presley, arrives in March. "Lennon," celebrating the life and music of John Lennon, shows up this summer. Let's hope they have better luck – and better showcases - than the Beach Boys.
There used to be a dentist in New Jersey who wrote gags for ailing shows.
Has he retired?
If ever a show was in desperate need of his help, it's "Good Vibrations," the pathetic attempt at making a musical from songs by the Beach Boys.
What might have been a "feel-good" evening is simply dumb and tedious, more like Novocain than laughing gas.
It's just depressing that the apparent model for musicals nowadays is "Mamma Mia!," which attached a feebly written plot to the songs of ABBA.
The implication is that musicals are a kind of living jukebox, where people are so happy to hear music they love that they will put up with plots that make the average sitcom seem like great drama.
Here, an unusually contrived plot is woven around the cheery music of the Beach Boys. Initial reports indicated that the material was so awful it might be fun. But it isn't. It's just bland.
The "plot" concerns Caroline (Kate Reinders), a high-school senior and president of the French Club, who has long had a crush on Bobby (David Larsen), a popular guy who gets her to give him answers on math tests.
She owns a car, which you might imagine would make her quite popular. But she has so few friends that Bobby can flatter her into driving him and his buddies from somewhere back east to California, where they can surf. At that point, he reveals he has just used her.
Happily, she blossoms in the California sun, and Bobby proves a loser. Nevertheless, we are supposed to be glad when they get together at the end of the show. (Occasionally, readers complain when I give away the ending. Trust me, this time I'm doing you a favor.)
Apart from the flimsiness of the story line, it is so amateurishly delineated that, looking back, "Grease" begins to seem like "My Fair Lady."
"Grease," after all, had a point of view about its period, the '50s. It also had an original score, which, if primitive by Broadway standards, at least had a satiric edge and some bounce.
Here, nothing seems to have been thought out. Everything is aimless.
The thinking seems to have been that the music would carry everything along with it. Sad to say, except for occasional harmonic passages, the music is not performed with enough gusto to achieve the desired effect.
Given the synthetic nature of everything about this show, wouldn't it have been cheaper and more effective to play the actual Beach Boys tracks and have the cast lip-sync?
The actors go through their paces brightly, but the overall effect, matching the material, is hollow.
John Carrafa's choreography does not brighten the proceedings. The steps tend to be repetitive. If there was any point to doing a surfing musical, it might have been to find a way to soar choreographically. He hasn't.
Heidi Ettinger's sets are uncharacteristically chintzy, though the foamy waves are well lit. Jess Goldstein's costumes are tiresomely gaudy.
Bring back "Psycho Beach Party."
The dark side of success is failure, at least in the theater.
Someone hits the jackpot with "Mamma Mia!" by constructing a Broadway musical from the old ABBA catalog, or shapes Billy Joel's music into "Movin' Out," and then someone else decides to try to print dollar bills the same way.
Thus we have "Good Vibrations," which opened last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, hoping to capitalize on sun-drenched oldies from the Beach Boys.
Needless to say, the vibes are not so hot.
Despite the almost manic enthusiasm of a youthful cast covering well-known standards from the Wilson/Beach Boys song-book, the show remains beached.
Where did the producers go wrong?
Forget the vibrations. According to Broadway Musical 101, you need a good score, a good book and good staging. Not one, not two, but all three.
For Beach Boy nostalgia buffs - and I count myself among them - the score is pretty good. I might have chosen different songs, but any show that has "Wouldn't It Be Nice" can't be all bad.
But the book! With "Mamma Mia!" Catherine Johnson did a miraculously seamless job of stitching together the ABBA songs into an attractive story.
The story of Vietnam vets works well for "Movin' Out," especially when you have a director-choreographer of genius like Twyla Tharp (who, ironically, made her own ballet to Beach Boys music, the marvelous "Deuce Coupe," in '73).
John Carrafa, the director and choreographer of "Good Vibrations," is hardly in Tharp's league - they're scarcely playing the same game. As for Richard Dresser's drab book, it almost disappears into Heidi Ettinger's ugly settings and Jess Goldstein's conventional costumes.
For what it's worth, the story tells of a group of East Coast kids who, after high school graduation, go west for the sun and surf. Two couples - plus a third pair who turn out to be gay - eventually find true love. "The Odyssey," it isn't.
The cast tries hard - the actors practically burst their seams trying hard. The two leading couples, the romantically troubled (Kate Reinders and David Larsen) and the nerdily comic (Jessica Snow-Wilson and Tituss Burgess) do very well.
But it's the wrong time, the wrong show and the wrong beach.
Even those who believe everything on this planet is here for a purpose may at first have trouble justifying the existence of "Good Vibrations," the singing headache that opened last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theater.
But audience members strong enough to sit through this rickety jukebox of a show, which manages to purge all catchiness from the surpassingly catchy hits of the Beach Boys, will discover that the production does have a reason to be, and a noble one: "Good Vibrations" sacrifices itself, night after night and with considerable anguish, to make all other musicals on Broadway look good.
Such virtuous behavior could not come at a more propitious moment. Just think of the roster of dim, dispiriting shows that have opened this season: "Brooklyn," "Little Women," the deceased "Dracula." Each of these clunkers now feels like a high point of professionalism thanks to "Good Vibrations," which features a lot of washboard-stomached performers who give the impression of having spent far more time in the gym than in the rehearsal studio. As they smile, wriggle and squeak with the desperation of wet young things hung out to dry, you feel their pain. It is unlikely, however, to be more acute than yours.
Directed and choreographed by John Carrafa (with the reported assistance of last-minute consultants), "Good Vibrations" strings together more than 30 of the kind of musically sophisticated, girl-crazy, California-centric songs ("Surfer Girl," "California Girls") that kept the Beach Boys high in the Top 40 in the mid-1960's.
But it isn't just songs that have been borrowed (and mutilated) for this production, which features a blockheaded comic strip of a book by Richard Dresser, a respectable playwright who should know better. Every element in the show appears to have been cribbed in haste, as if on the morning of a final exam, from other, more agreeable musicals of the jukebox/pop pastiche genre, which is gradually devouring all of Broadway.
The plot, which traces the bumpy romance between a popular bad boy and a nerdy good girl (who learns how to be cooler than he is), loudly echoes that of "Grease," the pimply grandsire of the kitsch-rock musical. The idea of showing a generation dance from adolescence to adulthood, to an era-defining background of period music, has been shaped to perfection in "Movin' Out," the improbable, inspired collaboration between the singer and composer Billy Joel and the choreographer Twyla Tharp. (For its interpretation of its title song, "Good Vibrations" unwisely dares to invite direct comparison to Ms. Tharp's ecstatic, white-clad finale for "Movin' Out.")
And as for where the folks behind "Good Vibrations" got the idea for their goofy, literal-minded, karaoke-style approach to a classic pop songbook, you need only think of two little words that have become a religious mantra for producers looking for a prepackaged mix for a hit: "Mamma Mia!" (That's the title of the cannily idiotic sing-along show that weaves a score from the songs of the disco group Abba.)
But while "Good Vibrations" dutifully culls from its hot-ticket predecessors, the sum effect is of a lumbering, brainless Frankenstein's monster, stitched together from stolen body parts and stuffed into a wild bikini. From its cutely clichéd script (which begins, "Once upon a time there was a far-off land called California") to its haphazard choreography, the show feels as if it simply gave up on trying to figure out the balance of nostalgia and satire that can make this kind of show-biz exercise profitable.
Since the performers really aren't to blame for the aimlessness of "Good Vibrations," I won't mention any of their names, though there are a few who make you feel that smiling should be outlawed for a while. I'm surprised, though, by the sloppiness of the staging and dance routines, since Mr. Carrafa showed himself as a choreographer of promising, winking wit with the recent New York productions of "Urinetown" and "Into the Woods."
The talented Heidi Ettinger's cartoonish, overaccessorized sets (beach balls galore!) are tacky in a way that looks appealing in the campy windows of the Ricky's chain of cosmetics stores but does not benefit from being blown up to Broadway proportions. Jess Goldstein's costumes suggest a mass-market department store trying to woo a younger, trendier customer. The clothes, by the way, are a potpourri of looks from the 1960's to the present, since the creators of "Good Vibrations" are clearly hoping to appeal to as many age groups as possible. (The year when the show takes place is deliberately never identified.)
Much of this could be forgiven if the songs sounded any good. But despite the abiding infectiousness and seeming simplicity of the music of Brian Wilson, the brilliant mastermind of the Beach Boys, and his collaborators, recreating these numbers is no easy task. Mr. Wilson is famous for laboring for long months in the studio to fine-tune the elaborately layered vocals and instrumentals that became his signature. A single flat note or a falsetto's slip into a screech is enough to make the Wilson-style wall of sound come tumbling down. Suffice it to say that there is an abundance of flat notes, literal and figurative, in "Good Vibrations."
Mamma Mia, what hath ABBA wrought? And sorry, but Twyla Tharp and Billy Joel also have a lot to answer for this season.
"Good Vibrations," the first of three new Broadway musicals that use hits by old pop stars, opened last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. If upcoming shows about Elvis and John Lennon are half as clueless as this bubblehead sucking the life from 32 songs by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys – who knows? Producers just might have to give up the security of the jukebox and invest in new creative talent.
"Good Vibrations" shoehorns the songs into Richard Dresser's generic coming-of-age hodgepodge about blue-collar East Coast high-school graduates on their way to a surfin' safari. The aggressively charmless adventure begins with a character exclaiming, as if someone actually believed this to be a clever start, "Once upon a time, there was a far off land called California ...."
Admirers of John Carrafa's choreography for such witty shows as "Urinetown," not to mention his formative years as a Tharp dancer, cannot help but be dismayed by the thud emanating from his direction and choreography. Story parallels with Tharp's brilliant dance-driven "Movin' Out" seem too obvious to be accidental, while comparisons with her 1973 Beach Boys ballet, "Deuce Coupe," are simply painful.
We begin, of course, at the high-school prom, with the popular Bobby oblivious to the feelings of the bookworm Caroline. When Bobby and his two buddies realize that Caroline has a car, however, they pretend to want her along. There is a nasty undercurrent to the escapade from the start and, if Caroline were not as boring as the boys, we might be able to work up a little sympathy for her.
All the while, this hard-grinding cast of youthful unknowns is selling Animatronic facsimiles of such breezily sexual, open-spirited classics as "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "Surfin' USA" and the title song. Although the Beach Boys mind-melded an era with acute specificity, the creators of "Good Vibrations" thought it would be cute to refuse to tell us the year of the graduating class - that is, "Class of 19 ..."
Kate Reinders is a hard-edged, low-wattage clone of Kristen Chenoweth. David Larsen is so bland as Bobby that we actually find ourselves wishing the sound designer would pump up his mike. The vanilla characters - even the unlikely African-American rich kid (Tituss Burgess) - have no internal lives, much less innocence or sophistication.
The city on the East Coast, wherever that may be, is dark and the surfer beach doesn't look much sunnier. The onstage combo appears to be performing from the back of a truck. Heidi Ettinger's set is a noncommittal collage of surfer imagery that finally explodes into a dazzling ocean night. There are lots and lots of costumes (by Jess Goldstein), but the surfer girls look like hookers and the period fashions are insistently vague.
Carrafa's choreography doesn't get more specific than the swim and country line-dances. If there are shapes within the jumble, the stage is too crowded to reveal them. There are pleasures in reminders of five-part harmonies, the deep two-step beats and the stories behind them. But when someone drags in a reason to sing "Sloop John B," we can't hear past the lyrics about wanting to go home.
In the new musical Good Vibrations (* * ½ out of four), a cute but prudish teenage girl falls for the coolest guy in her high school class. They and their friends flirt, fight, obsess over cars and eventually deal with life after graduation.
If you think you've seen this saga before, you have: It was called Grease. But while Vibrations' plot - if one could call it a plot - brings to mind that well-worn valentine to the '50s, its structure has more in common with a '70s homage, the ABBA tribute Mamma Mia!
Like that relatively recent hit, Vibrations, which opened Wednesday at Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre, is essentially a song catalog strung together by a contrived story and lame jokes. Produced on the remise that today's audiences would sooner fork over their cash to hear pop songs they’re already familiar with - in this case, the hits of the Beach Boys -than take a gamble on original entertainment.
It's a premise that has been duly lamented by composers, lyricists, librettists and anyone who gives a fig about the future of musical theater. But in this case, it provides a diverting, if sometimes irritating, two hours, thanks to the synergy between an energetic young cast and a reliable old master. The latter would be principal Beach Boys songwriter Brian Wilson, whose achingly bittersweet songs have led rock critics to deem him the Mozart of their genre.
Given the attitudes those critics harbor toward musicals, attitudes that tend to range from sneering to willfully ignorant, I'm guessing that many will be surprised by how well Wilson's tunes are served in this production. They shouldn't be; the intricate, keening melodies and lush harmonies driving classics such as God Only Knows, In My Room and Warmth of the Sun are the sort of stuff theatrically trained singers can handle more readily than a lot of their pop peers - and without the benefit of pitch correction.
That said, director John Carrafa and his colleagues - among them musical consultant Van Dyke Parks, a longtime Wilson collaborator - wisely opted to work with performers whose voices accommodate rock and folk textures. Tittuss Burgess' soaring, soulful tenor is a standout, at least until he starts indulging in American Idol-style mugging toward the end. Kate Reinders, who plays our squeaky-clean heroine, has a slighter but pretty soprano, and a pleasantly perky presence.
To their credit, the actors seem to realize they're serving as glorified disc jockeys, tossing out lines that either set up songs or allude to them; and they deliver with a wink and a shrug. That approach comes in handy when Burgess' character, appealing to a leggy babe, begs, "Rhonda, you caught my eye, and I could give you lots of reasons ..."
But you know the rest.