Good Vibrations arrived here as one of the easiest targets in recent memory for critical scorn, carrying nearly as much negative word of mouth as had hovered over Dracula and Dance of the Vampires combined. The real question, though, is how its perpetrators could have gone so wrong. Given the material it started with, it ought to have been as easy to assemble and operate as any machine-age product, with nothing to keep it from being as successful as Mamma Mia, if not more so. After all, Beach Boys songs are genuinely musical, with a sound and a set of techniques that still feel fresh today, whereas nobody, not even people who wax nostalgic over the disco era, could claim that Abba was offering anything musically original. Beach Boys songs are not only reminders of somebody’s childhood and somebody else’s first surfboard (or first viewing of The Endless Summer), they’re emotional experiences in themselves, each with a ring and a shape and a substance of its own.
You would think the first goal of the musical’s creators would be to find a story that set off the songs, creating an atmosphere in which they could blossom. Richard Dresser’s book starts out on the wrong coast—was there ever music that sounded more like the California shoreline than this?—and takes an unconscionably long time heading west, with no particular events of interest on the way and even less of a notion about what to do when it finally hits the beach. In terms of dramatic logic, this script makes Gidget movies look like Hegel. At least Mamma Mia‘s stupid secondhand story is consistent in its stupidity and secondhand-ness, and has enough sense to get the job done and get out of the way of the numbers.
Not, mind you, that there’s much to get out of the way of in John Carrafa’s choreography, which makes extensive demands on the dancers without giving them much in return; The numbers are rarely focused for effect, and the individual personalities don’t emerge. The lead, David Larsen, is first-rate in the footwork department, but is also, unwisely, asked to carry a heavy singing burden: He has a beautiful falsetto but his gravelly middle register suggests Judi Dench on a foggy day. It’s a relief when somebody like Tituss Burgess or Sebastian Arcelus takes over. Kate Reinders, the female lead, does well despite a character that makes zero sense; Jessica-Snow Wilson, the lead in what’s apparently meant to be the comic subplot, is often only waving in the general direction of the note when she sings. And as if to make sure all the show’s potential niche markets are covered, there’s a “gay” subplot that takes up roughly 90 seconds of stage time. (Maybe the word in quotes should be “subplot” rather than “gay.”)
Yes, there are moments of fun. I smiled when the second-act curtain went up on Heidi Ettinger’s sky full of beach balls. And even patchy vocal execution can’t kill the songs, with their funnily curving harmonies and their cool, tangy blend of medieval polyphony with gospel decoration. But almost everything in the show looks as if it were set up to market the Beach Boys’ songs without giving any thought to what the songs were or how they might live in a theater piece. In the long run, despite all the devoted work and last-ditch repair efforts that have gone into it, Good Vibrations displays only the producers’ notion that it might be salable. Apparently no one involved bothered to ask why they were selling it, or how to make it worth buying. It makes you wonder if, before the manufacturing process started, any of the producers ever actually listened to a Beach Boys song.