BWW Reviews: THE BIKINIS Try to Bring Back the '60s at Broadway Rose
When exactly did people stop writing musicals? It seems like every musical I see these days is a retread, a revival, or a collection of old songs repackaged with some semblance of a plot. Jukebox musicals can be terrific (Ain't Misbehavin'), insanely fun (Mamma Mia!), or just plain bland (most of the rest of them), but they seem to be a sign that writers have given up trying to challenge audiences with new material. Given the cost of putting on a Broadway show these days, it's understandable that the people putting up the money want some sort of guarantee that people will come: a recognizable property, like an old movie or a collection of hit songs, seems more likely to put bodies in the seats than a new script, new songs, and an unfamiliar story.
Which brings me to The Bikinis. It's the same concept you've seen a few thousand times: Let's bring together the members of an old singing group, rehash their lives and past conflicts, and hear them sing the old songs. The Bikinis weren't even a one-hit wonder; they recorded one 45, which got played on a radio station in their hometown on the Jersey shore. They sang at a few weddings, went their separate ways in life, and are now reunited in an effort to save a trailer park - excuse me, mobile home beach resort. (That's about as funny as the dialogue gets.) The jokes are lame, the characters are each assigned one personality trait, and the attempts to be heartfelt go flat. And yet...it's a perfect package of boomer nostalgia, so the audience goes wild.
Well, I'm a bit younger than the target audience for the show. I have no memories of beach blanket movies or early '60s girl groups. So I might be the wrong person to review The Bikinis, but here goes. The first act is relatively painless; the girls (now in their late forties) tell us how they got together, reminisce about growing up in Jersey, and sing the songs you'd expect from the period, ending with their hit, "In My Bikini." The second act meanders all over the late 20th century, throwing in protest songs, feminism, Vietnam, and a much-too-long dip into disco. Director/choreographer Jacob Toth keeps the show moving along, sending the performers into the audience a few times too often, but there wasn't much he could do with the material. Music director Jeffrey Childs did a fantastic job coordinating the vocals and the band; musically the show is near perfect, and when the singers are allowed to just sing, they're great. (Whoever did the vocal arrangements on Melissa Manchester's "Midnight Blue" deserves a medal.)
The four women in the cast are all talented vocalists, and they blend well when singing together, but none of them seem comfortable in their roles. In looking at the program, I see that each has a long list of credits in musical (and nonmusical) theater, and I started to wonder if perhaps they were frustrated at not having anything to play. For the most part, the characters take turn narrating the story to us, interrupting each other and dropping in song cues along the way. The only time they're actually acting is late in Act One, when they put on their version of a Frankie-and-Annette movie, complete with costumes, funny voices, and a plot; suddenly all four actresses come alive and seem invested in what they're doing.
Still, they gamely go along with whatever the script asks of them. Laurie Campbell-Leslie, Sharon Maroney, and Lisamarie Harrison each show off their talents, but the most relaxed of the group is Emily Sahler, as Barbara, the wisecracker of the group. Sahler looks most comfortable singing the period songs, and she comes up with the only attempt at a Jersey accent; she manages to do the silliest things without batting an eyelash, even when she's stuffed into a terrible disco-era outfit.
Which brings me to costumes and choreography. The ladies are, ahem, of a certain age, and they're forced into black leotards that just plain don't fit (and certainly don't flatter). They add and remove other costume pieces as needed, all of which have a certain tackiness to them, and I couldn't decide if this was meant to look cheap and inadequate (befitting the characters' lack of money) or was just a bad decision on the costume designer's part. Likewise, the choreography, most of it in the form of three of the ladies doing some sort of movement in back of whoever was singing lead, was bland, and the actresses definitely didn't seem to know it, but again I'm not sure if this was deliberate or just a lack of adequate rehearsal time.
The Bikinis isn't a bad show, and if you love the music of the era you'll probably have a good time. But Broadway Rose has done much, much better work in the past - and has chosen much, much better material. Let's hope they find their way home from the beach.