Seen on Broadway: If you’re one of those people who finds the campy, kitschy Old Navy commercials annoying, do yourself a favor and avoid the Eugene O’Neill Theatre (at least for a few more days) and its production of Good Vibrations. This ode to the music of the Beach Boys is not the worst thing I’ve ever seen on Broadway (that honor still belongs to Dracula), but boy does it try. On paper, a Beach Boys musical looks like a good idea. On stage it’s a different story. And speaking of, there really is no story in the paper-thin book by lauded playwright Richard Dresser. In a nutshell: East Coast kids decide to go to California after high school graduation and the nerdy girl becomes cool and the cool guy learns a lesson. Bored yet? Oh yeah, and there was a subplot about another cool dude who comes out of the closet at the end (I am being generous with the term “subplot”; it was a sentence and a lighting cue, but that’s what passes as a subplot in Good Vibrations).
Speaking of lighting cues, the lighting by Brian MacDevitt and Jason Lyons was certainly a high point in the show’s design. Heidi Ettinger’s sets were somewhat typical. The first act “high school” set of a brick wall, upper walkway, and other stuff littered about reminded me of the garages from the TV shows Taxi and Chico and the Man. However, when the grungy wall was flown out once the kids arrived in California, you were glad the road trip was over. The second act’s focal scenic element was a crashing wave that was actually pretty cool, especially when a surfer slid down it from stage left to stage right. Maybe it can be reconstituted for The Poseidon Adventure: The Musical. Also, the back wall during the second act was a striking scenic element and hosted the projections exceedingly well. The costumes by Jess Goldstein were, well, seemingly off the rack (see Old Navy comment above). Interestingly the show intentionally avoided any mention of exactly when the action was taking place: it could’ve been 1968, 1974, 1986, 2005, or beyond so that kept the wardrobe in a vague, “every beach bum” style. Then again, since there were no body piercings on the scantily clad and toned cast, it obviously took place before 1990. There were a number of whimsical and fun projections by Elaine J. McCarthy and the sound design by Tom Morse was well done. But it must be said that perhaps it’s time to start training actors in proper microphone etiquette; one actor in particular kept hitting his lav mike and the resulting crackle sounded like a crouton the size of a filing cabinet being crushed.
It’s probably a good thing that Good Vibrations got a deservedly critical drubbing. Had it been a success, can you imagine the next wave of jukebox musicals: We Belong: The Pat Benatar Musical, Hurts So Good: The John Mellencamp Musical, Ride Like the Wind: The Christopher Cross Musical, or Wild Boys: The Duran Duran Musical. Actually, that gives me an idea….keep your eyes peeled for Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical!
Seen Off-Broadway: On my first trip to New York City in May 1990, I saw Forbidden Broadway at its cramped venue on the Upper East Side and had a blast laughing at the skewers of Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, et al. In subsequent years since then, I’ve seen various incarnations of the show a half dozen times or so and they’ve all seen their share of belly laughs from me. There were no laughs at a recent production of Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit at the dreary John Houseman Theatre. Maybe it was the lack of alcohol and finger food. Maybe it was the presence of flat jokes, uninspired routines, or subtle racism.
As the title indicates, the show starts with a bang—literally—as Little Orphan Annie is shot dead in a recycled routine about being too old to play Annie. On come two actors portraying Law & Order characters to investigate the “death of Broadway as we know it.” Clever concept, right? Don’t get too attached to it as it was dropped immediately for a litany of staid satires on shows and performers. It’s one thing to skewer Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel as Wicked’s dueling divas but it’s quite another to keep digging up the Ethel Merman routine. Let it go. I even understood the inside joke that Menzel is trying to escape Chenoweth’s shadow, but it still wasn’t funny: Wicked’s “Defying Gravity” became “Defying Chenoweth.” Get it? There were also parodies of closed shows (Thoroughly Modern Millie as the worst Best Musical ever; Bernadette Peters not being right for Mama Rose in Gypsy; Bombay Dreams for its Bollywood excess) that seemed pointless. The Bombay Dreams parody seemed like an especially egregiously missed opportunity considering the source material but the creators chose to eschew the show’s catchy tunes for “Hooray for Bollywood” and “Lullaby of Bombay” which were rewrites of the obvious tunes. The Fiddler on the Roof parody started out funny enough, addressing the complaints that the current revival was too non-traditional, then it went on for another 10 minutes. If brevity is the soul of wit, then Forbidden Broadway is painfully bereft of both.
The lighting design by Marc Janowitz seemed to be an entirely conventional rig and brought life to the show more skillfully than the action on stage. The costumes by Alvin Colt had some clever moments, especially The Lion King parody, but the cast was mostly in eveningwear, t-shirts over slacks, etc. There are two designers credited for the set design--Bradley Kay and Megan Halpern--which struck me as odd considering that the set consists entirely of a grand piano on a bare stage. Granted, it probably took two people to move it into just the right position, but aren’t there stagehands for that? In all fairness there was a painted proscenium littered with the show’s trademark caricatures of actors which, if you crane your head around the auditorium and see the theatre poster mockups of Forbidden Broadway’s previous incarnations or satirical takes on actual show posters, then you see those same portraits. Perhaps one of those credited with the set design is the artist, whose style is “faux Al Hirschfeld.”
It’s sad to see a show you admired so much a decade and a half ago become a decrepit version of its former self. To the show’s credit, on a recent viewing of the current Fiddler revival at the Minskoff, I couldn’t help but remember Forbidden Broadway’s famous parody of “Tradition” called “Ambition” that began with “An actor in New York. Sounds crazy….” But that was as much a skewering of the abundance of actors in the Big Apple as it was a loving tribute to them. That was a long time ago and it appears a lot of love has been lost in Forbidden Broadway.
--Mark A. Newman