Review: “The Bikinis” at Westchester Broadway Theatre
John P. McCarthy
OnStage New York Critic
Elmsford, NY – If somewhere up there musical-comedy luminaries such as Judy Garland, Ethel Merman, and the recently departed Debbie Reynolds have a god’s-eye view of the theatrical landscape, I’m convinced they tipped their celestial bowlers to the four ladies who opened in the jukebox musical “The Bikinis” at Westchester Broadway Theatre on Friday night.
That’s not to suggest Katy Blake, Anne Fraser Thomas, Joanna Young and Karyn Quakenbush belong in the showbiz pantheon alongside the three legends mentioned above. Only that they are real troupers who, while playing members of a fictional girl band from the 1960s, exhibit admirable grit and talent. You see, despite working with pretty dire material, they choose to own it, blemishes-and-all.
Created by Ray Roderick and James Hindman, “The Bikinis: A New Musical Beach Party!” is a plain and bumpy skip down memory lane aimed at Baby Boomers. Billed as the female version of “Jersey Boys,” it has popped up here and there on the regional circuit since being cobbled together several years ago. The book is uninspired, the staging is bare bones, and most of the songs are catchy confections (dustings of powdered sugar to taste). But the sunny moxie of the cast saves the day.
It takes place on New Years Eve 2000, when two sisters, their cousin and their best friend reunite for a concert in the recreation hall of a New Jersey beachfront community. In the summer of 1964, the four teens formed their girl band at Sandy Shores, a scruffily idyllic trailer park by the sea that fancied itself a Mobile Home Beach Resort.
With a developer now offering to buy the property, The Bikinis look back on their career, which amounted to seasonal shore gigs and an attempt to cut a demo record – a 45, to be exact, containing one original song on the A side and another on the B. Additional dramatic tension is intended to arise from whether or not Sandy Shores residents will vote to cash-in and let a condo tower get built on the site.
Now middle-aged, the ladies declare at the outset they won’t be donning bikinis or swimwear of any kind while performing what turns out to be a musical mishmash. Act I is devoted to early ‘60’s beach and surf ditties such as “Heat Wave,” “Be My Baby,” “Where the Boys Are,” and “Itsy Bitsy, Teeny Weeny, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” An energetic reenactment of the popular Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello movie “Beach Blanket Bingo” is arguably the evening’s best segment.
Act II veers away from such sweet-and-silly waters to sample counter-cultural songs from the “summer of love” and Woodstock/anti-Vietnam years. There’s a quick and fairly jarring detour through country music before the group arrives into the mid-1970s and offers a large dose of disco. They eventually return to the lighter beach idiom, yet these genre digressions enable the performers to belt out anthems that showcase their vocal abilities while examining their character’s post-adolescent relationships from a safely mainstream feminist perspective.
With skill and power, they imbue these numbers with considerable emotion. All four women have strong voices and the only major ding on their singing, and the musical direction in general, is that they sound too much alike. (With my eyes closed, I would not have been able to identify who was singing.) A similar homogeneity characterizes the sound emanating from the four-piece band -- two keyboards, guitar and drums -- that backs the women from on stage.
When compared to the humor in “The Bikinis,” the music is highly evolved. And yet, the tired ethnic parodies, weak boob jokes and lame puns are always delivered with conviction and a smile (with only slightly perceptible winks and nudges). No one ever suggests they’d like to disown the groan-worthy shtick. Their apparent belief in it is charming and only adds to the winsomeness of their overall performances.
Presumably, part of the reason they seem so comfortable is that three of the four have appeared in the show before. And one, Karyn Quakenbush, is married to “The Bikinis” co-creator, director and choreographer Ray Roderick. Let it be noted that nepotism is a good thing in this case, since Ms. Quakenbush’s acting and singing is worth showcasing.
When The Bikinis send their 45 to Dick Clark in hopes of appearing on “American Bandstand,” he writes back: “Cute, but too old school.” This sums up the show and occasions a thought concerning nostalgia. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with entertainments designed to make you look back and sigh. The issue is whether or not they succeed.
If, as I suspect, “The Bikinis” does the trick for only a small percentage of audience members, performers the caliber of Katy Blake, Anne Fraser Thomas, Joanna Young, and Karyn Quakenbush won’t be satisfied. That integrity, combined with talent and determination, is what earns the respect of other show folk such as Judy Garland, Ethel Merman and Debbie Reynolds.
“The Bikinis” runs through March 19th at Westchester Broadway Theatre, One Broadway Plaza, Elmsford, NY.