Joseph Baker

Bygone Tunes of Boomer Summers

The Bikinis, a 60s Musical Beach Party offers a fun night tripping down Memory Lane—a lane paved with some of the big hits of the era. The four women—Annie (Valerie Fagan), her sister Jodi (Lori Hammer), Barbara (Regina Levert) and Karla (Karyn Quackenbush)—from the Jersey showr have a mission: to stir up memories of beloved Sandy Shores, a trailer park—er, mobile home resort—at the beach that has been given a big money offer from major developers. Will the locals sell out on their past? That question seems to put us firmly in the Eighties, when “the legacy” of the Sixties was a going concern in the era of rampant corporate glut and the lifestyles of the rich and predatory. Indeed, the most recent song in this nostalgic trip back in time is from 1982—and that’s where the conceit of all this begins to flag a bit. The songs from the Sixties have almost talismanic familiarity, but the later songs—do they catalyze a sense of time and place in the same way?

In the first half, the songs sustain the fantasy well. The four women formed a purely local girl-group dreaming of producing “a 45” (“remember 45s?” Karla asks soulfully) to get on American Bandstand. This plot lets the four take turns leading us through some of the best fun-time music available: “It’s In His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song),” “Heat Wave,” “ Be My Baby,” “Shop Around,” “Under the Boardwalk.” If such music brings with it visions of “beach blanket bingo,” so be it. The game girls enact for us the risible plot of a favorite beach bimbo film—including the risqué theme song “Beach Blankets, Boards and Balls”—that includes a “Secret Agent Man,” and cameos by Nancy “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” Sinatra, and Elvis himself, “Shakin’ in the Sand.” The story moves between retrospect—as the girls tell the tale of their “act”—and the present, where a vote for sell or stay has been placed before us (aka, the good people of Sandy Shores), while sisters Annie (stay) and Jodi (sell) vie for swaying our sympathies.

By the time The Bikinis realize their dream—in the Second Part—the changing times have produced psychedelia and groups of girls singing together are “an endangered species.” I’m assuming “The Age of Aquarius”—the go-to song for that Summer of Love era—was unavailable, so we get “Time of the Season,” “Incense and Peppermints” (the statement about girl groups no longer cutting it is apropos), and then Annie—the one with the hippie gleam in her eye—gives us a rousing evocation of Melanie, a performer at Woodstock and a girl from Queens, who was a familiar hippie chick for a time. Also in this segment, Karla sings “Dedicated to the One I Love” for all the boys overseas. The bridge between the unabashed silliness of the First Part and the changing fortunes in the Second is the simple fact that “where the boys are” went from being the shores of Jersey to being the jungles of Nam.

This aspect of the show—trying to interject a tribute to soldiers as well as demonstrating the “make love, not war” enthusiasms of many of the young at the time—stretches a bit thin the show's aim at a generational credo. And yet it’s commendable that the show’s authors, Ray Roderick and James Hindman, with musical arrangements and additional music and lyrics by Joseph Baker, try to work in one of the mainstays of the Baby Boomers’ youth: the war. It’s impossible to understand how youth culture developed without keeping in mind the draft and the increasing unpopularity of the military commitments in Southeast Asia, symbolized here by a telling choice: Bobby Darin’s “Simple Song of Freedom.” It’s not that Darin was ever “the voice of a generation,” but when the singer of “Splish Splash” and “Beyond the Sea” starts singing songs with “a message,” then the times were a-changin’ indeed.

The show’s main attention is to the experience of women, and since women weren’t being drafted, theirs is either a “wait and worry” or a “march and protest” experience. Then comes the era of divorce and ERA, and—fittingly to a country-style tune—the songs of feisty women dumping errant men. Linda Ronstadt’s cover of Buddy Holly’s “When Will I Be Loved” is a well-chosen referent point as well, as one of the most successful singers ever showed the purchasing power of women for a woman. The “change” is best expressed by Melissa Manchester’s Easy Listening classic, “Midnight Blue”—“once more for all the old times.”

But even the attempt to cash in on disco—Barbara knows a bouncer at a club—with “Last Dance,” “I’m Every Woman,” and “I Will Survive” falls hard as the phase doesn’t last. It’s at that point that “It’s Raining Men” takes us toward camp. But what about Sandy Shores? Who will decide the fate of the happy hunting ground for the bikinis of tomorrow?

The Bikinis mixes both story-telling and illustration into its playlist and is best at letting the audience relive the appeal of the era's music, which is undeniable. And tying the songs to historical changes—in the country and in the lives of women—gives the show more dimension, though almost more than it can handle. As the story of four women who shared the times together The Bikinis will no doubt be a great night out for any who shared that road as well.

As Barbara, Regina Levert has the best voice for belting and gets to shimmy in a shiny disco dress; as Karla, Karyn Quackenbush does comic turns—such as a “Don” calling for an Italian number, or Annette complete with big . . . mouse ears—and is the most expressive as the ditzy little blonde of the group; as the sisters at loggerheads, Jodi and Annie, Lori Hammel is the more sensible and Valerie Fagan the more idealistic; Hammel adds fun by acting the male parts—take-offs on Elvis and Frankie Avalon. One of the interesting aspects of the show is seeing how the figures of entertainment of earlier eras become tropes for a bygone Americana that is always, from the perspective of the present, a Golden Age of fun and excitement, even when it wasn’t.

As a send-up, a tribute, and a re-cap, The Bikinis keeps it fun and bouncy, with even a touch of vaudeville . . . but no bikinis.

Long Wharf Theatre and Miracle or 2 Productions present The Bikinis Created and written by Ray Roderick and James Hindman Music Arrangements by Joseph Baker Additional Music and Lyrics by Joseph Baker and Ray Roderick Directed and Choreographed by Ray Roderick

Cast: Valerie Fagan; Regina Levert; Karyn Quackenbush; Lori Hammel; Lighting Design: Jamie Roderick; General Manager: James Hindman; Associate Director: Becky Timms; Associate Producer: Nancy Rosati; Musical Supervisor: Joseph Baker; Musical Direction: Dan Pardo

Long Wharf Theatre July 9-27, 2014