By Matt Windman
“Mamma Mia!” was certainly not the first Broadway musical to recycle old pop hits into a cheesy story, but as of this moment, it is the profitable musical vehicle in the world (check the show’s website to witness just how many companies are currently touring internationally). As such, “Good Vibrations” represents an attempt to copy the “Mamma Mia!” formula, with Beach Boy songs in place of ABBA songs.
So, if “Good Vibrations” was directly modeled on “Mamma Mia!” which, even if not great theater is a bountiful supply of mindless fun, how come “Good Vibrations” failed? That could be summed up in two words: bad direction. More specifically, try these words: John Carrafa. The show as a whole comes off as an untamed mess (one to which a smarter director could have at least brought some style), and his choreography, however bouncy as it may be, is repetitive and uninspired. For example, in “Help Me Rhonda,” the entire cast forms a line and shakes their arms simultaneously in the air. Get it? No? Don’t worry.
John Carrafa gained fame on Broadway several years ago when he choreographed both “Urinetown the Musical” and the revival of “Into the Woods” in the same year. (He also gained Tony nominations for both, thereby canceling himself out of a deserved win for “Urinetown” to Rob Marshall for “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”)
Let’s recognize the fact that attempting to squeeze a vaguely coherent story out of pop songs (none of which were meant to tell a story) is an extremely unhealthy (though nevertheless commercially attractive) style of musical theater writing. In such a sense, the individual songs are more important than the plot and the characters. In the gaining popularity of the so-called jukebox musical, it is almost as if musical theater is moving backwards intellectually, before the Sondheim and Rodgers & Hammerstein revolutions, back to an age of songs complimented by utter nonsense and gags.
The show’s entire cast is made up of young twenty-something actors. According to Playbill feature article, Carrafa purposely cast actors with little to no Broadway stage experience because he wanted to highlight their youth and innocence.
In the first line of the show, actor David Larsen addresses the audience with the following: “Once upon a time, there was a land called California.” A moment later, the electric guitar play strikes up his strings, and the cast breaks out into “Fun, Fun, Fun,” the first Beach Boys standard of the evening. This number begins a process that will be repeated throughout the show, one where a song’s lyrics will have little or nothing to do with the play’s characters. For in terms of “Fun, Fun, Fun,” one cannot help but wonder – who is this girl that they are singing about? Where’s the T-Bird? Where’s her father? Are they somewhere in another musical?
Among the show’s three male protagonists, the one who sticks out is Tituss Burgess as Eddie. This is not so much because his character is better written than the others, but rather because his individual charms as a performer shine through the show’s shlock.
The same can be said about Kate Reinders as Caroline. In fact, the best moment of the show is Reinders’ exercise in joy in “Don’t Worry Baby,” in which her character dreams of being loved by Bobby, her longtime high school crush.
One must also mention the mess that is Heiti Ettinger’s set design. Act One takes place in a garage-like environment, representative of other industrial-style sets such as those used in “Rent” and ” Urinetown the Musical.” The band is also onstage, but for no apparent reason. Act Two takes place in front of a huge, ugly blue wave, which covers the entire back end of the stage. There are also sound problems. The band is loud, the microphones are blasting, and it’s often hard to understand what exactly the kids are singing. What results is pure, unadulterated cacophony.
The two pluses that “Good Vibrations” has going for it is the show’s attractive swimsuit clad cast and it’s treasure chest of Beach Boy songs. The Beach Boys’ songs, in and of themselves, are fun, smart pop songs. But rather than advance or bring new meaning to them, John Carrafa’s Broadway mis-production of “Good Vibrations” just brings shame to the Beach Boys legacy.
Eugene O’Neill Theatre
230 West 49th Street
Directed and choreographed by John Carrafa