Wednesday, February 20, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 137, A Review: "The Bikinis" (Connecticut Cabaret Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

An intoxicating mix of '60s and '70s song hits, some long forgotten, makes Connecticut Cabaret Theatre's newly mounted production of "The Bikinis" snap, crackle and pop with the cool assurance and charm of all things musical.


"The Bikinis" delivers the goods and plenty more.

All sweetness and light, it packs a surf city wallop that is sincere and sentimental.
The actual songbook contains one hit song after another.
The cute quotient gets laughs in all the right places without going overboard or resorting to high camp.
And the plot?
Believe it or not, there is one.

Created by Ray Roderick and James Hindman, "The Bikinis" takes a fond look back at a group of women, who, when they were in high school, formed a girl band (hence, "The Bikinis") and ended up having "Side A" of their 45 rpm single becoming a one-hit wonder.

"It's like we're 14 again," one of them remarks.

But as the show opens, it's New Year's Eve, 1999 and the girls, now women, have reunited for a one-night only concert at Sandy Shores Trailer Park, a beach front property where the residents are about to get kicked out of their homes by a very wealthy conglomerate who wants to pay them off with a very hefty sum and develop a brand new mobile home resort for the 21st century. Everything, however, is up for grabs depending on who votes "Yes," who votes "No" and who wants to grab the money and run.

When the music stops, and it does from time to time, there's plenty of peppy talk about high school, school girl crushes, "Beach Party" movies, Frankie and Annette, transistor radios, Nancy Sinatra, Woodstock, Lifeguard 23, the Summer of Love, the psychedelic era, the loss of virginity, disco fever, New Jersey and the Vietnam War.

A show like this, which taps into nostalgia for entertainment's sake, could easily fall into that escapist trap of doo-wop and bubble gum in the hands of inexperienced directors not versed in this sort of gumdrop gooey conceit. The enlistment of Kris McMurray as director of "The Bikinis," however, keeps this two-act musical happily afloat for well over two hours. With  a trunk load of directorial credits that include "Into the Woods," "Rent," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," "Singin' in the Rain," "South Pacific," "The Queen Bees," and "Grease," among others, McMurray gets it right every time.

As actor himself, he always finds new ways to entice and excite his audience with one memorable show after another. Directorially, he understands the mechanics of staging a musical, how to position and move it, how to cast it perfectly, how to design and stage it, how to make it flow and how to find the right musical director who shares his penchant for theatrical presentation and live performance.

Here, we get a finely crafted, lightweight musical entertainment of sorts that sizzles and snaps, charms and cajoles and keeps tight control of its playful, sugary concept. It is fun. It is simple. It is cute, It is fanciful. It is energetic and full of sparkle. And nothing is taken for grated. As the musical moves from one song to the next, McMurray always knows exactly what buttons to push. If the script calls for camp or whimsy, that's what you get. If the script calls for sentiment, candy-coated crushes, girl group rivalries or impromptu silliness, McMurray is only happy to oblige. But he's no copycat. Here, as in "Rent" and, most recently, "Wait Until Dark," he dances to his own tune. And that is what makes McMurray special and always at the top of his game.

"The Bikinis" also benefits from McMurray's actual knowledge and appreciation of the musical's time frame. He get the '60s and the '70s. He loves the '60s and the '70s. He understands the '60s and the '70s. He is akin to the musicality of the girl groups themselves, from their spirit and personalities to their synchronized dance moves, expressions and body language. He finds plenty to laugh at for entertainment's sake, but the end result is indicative of the dances found on "Hullabaloo," "Shindig!" "American Bandstand," "Where the Action Is," "Hollywood Palace," "Hollywood a Go-Go" and "Dance Fever." Fun, fun, fun.

The musical songbook for "The Bikinis" is a vinyl record showcase of the highest order that pays homage to those ever popular songs from the '60s and '70s. Among them: "It's in His Kiss," "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," "Heat Wave," "Under the Boardwalk," "Where the Boys Are," "Chapel of Love," "Mambo Italiano," "You Love Me," "Secret Agent Man," "Dedicated to the One I Love," "Last Dance," "I'm Every Woman," "I Will Survive," It's Raining Men" and "(Lay Down) Candles in the Rain." The songs themselves are an eclectic mix of chart busters that are lively, sweet, entertaining and syrupy smooth like a freshly-minted 45 rpm single from the nearby record store. You know, the kind where you could go into a listening booth, drop the needle down to play your record of choice and give your favorite song a spin or two on the turntable and indulge.

For the Connecticut Cabaret Theatre presentation, TJ Thompson (on the keyboard) serves as musical director with the able assist of Jamie Sherwood (guitar) and Tim Urso (percussion). They are great, of course, and are perfectly in sync with the show's musical journey down memory lane. There are a lot of songs here, 35 in all,  but nothing sounds repetitive or borders on overkill. From act to act, this exhilarating three-member band cuts loose much to the delight of everyone on stage and in the audience with well-timed whisps and bursts of sweet-sounding nostalgia.

Here, you can feel the music as well as hear and experience it. Thompson would have it no other way.  Under his tutelage, "The Bikinis" is lightweight fun and beach blanket bingo friendly all rolled up into one. Every one of the songs exudes that joyful commodity of the times. There is a genuine feeling for the lyrics, the mood swings and the textures of life and sound. The scope and genius of the different decades is celebrated with self-conscious flair and stimulation. And through it all, Thompson and company elicit something truly distinctive and vital. Then again, with a line up of songs like these, they could hardly avoid it.

The two-act musical stars Maria Soaft as Jodi, Emily Gray as Karla, Erin Liddell as Annie and Erica Whitfield as Barbara. All four are a bunch of charismatic performers whose innate charm, personality and showmanship give "The Bikinis" its unifying lift, spirit, sweetness and nostalgic adrenaline. As envisioned by the show's creators, the production itself allows each actress to embrace the music she is given, take hold of it, make it her own and illuminate its vocal veracity with the refreshing honesty and compassion that rocketed it to the top of the "Billboard" charts way back when.

As with most musicals of this genre, including "The Taffetas," "Forever Plaid," "The Wonderful Wonderettes" and "Beehive," there are obvious star turns, standouts, showstoppers and wonderfully wacky moments that make you smile, clap madly, shed a tear or give your husband, wife or partner a kiss or two on the cheek. Through it all, all four actresses have great fun and never once cease to amaze.  As actors, they are so very right for each of the roles they are asked to portray. They have a wonderful rapport with each other and the audience. They are skilled at impromptu improvisation whenever the moment strikes them. They know how to play comedy and they play it well. They also vividly project the mindset, the quirks, the quibbles and the uniquely different personalities of their characters.

Vocally, they are in full voice, smartly reflecting the vocal finesse and intent of the many songs they are asked to sing. They have fun. We have fun. What's wonderful here is the depth, the versatility and the song style of each vocalist as "The Bikinis" pays tribute to the songs of yesteryear. All four exude amazing form, range and control. Their harmonizing is pitch perfect. They also know how to wrap their voice around a lyric they want you to understand, acknowledge and appreciate. In turn, you can't help but reciprocate.

"The Bikinis" is lightweight froth with candy-coated sprinkles and vanilla ice cream. It's cute. It's sunny. It's gumdrop gooey. It's nostalgic. It's sweet-natured fun. It also comes gift wrapped with with beautiful ensemble blends and harmonies, soda pop on ice and sun, sand and surf. And oh yes, fond memories of Lifeguard 23, that blond, blue-eyed stud who caught the wave and the heart of every lovesick girl on the Jersey Shore who dropped her bikini top and bottom in the sand for some not-so-innocent fun and a whole lot more - under the boardwalk.

"The Bikinis" is being staged at Connecticut Cabaret Theatre (31-33 Webster Square Rd., Berlin, CT), now through March 16.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 829-1248

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