Westchester Broadway Theatre, Elmsford, NY, February 3, 2017
Reviewed by Chip Deffaa for Cabaret Scenes
(Clockwise from bottom): Karyn Quakenbush, Joanna Young, Anne Fraser Thomas, Katy Blake
Photo: John Vecchiolla
I didn’t care for The Bikinis, a jukebox musical written by Ray Roderick and James Hindman that is playing through March 19th at the Westchester Broadway dinner theater. The show features several dozen hits from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s (with additional music and lyrics by Roderick and Joseph Baker). There are some good numbers, arranged well by Baker and often performed well by the four-gal cast (backed by four musicians). But the book is just dreadful—about as fake, unconvincing, and contrived as a book could be.
And the show doesn’t really go anywhere. We are presented with a strange melange of songs—everything from “Mambo Italiano” and “Itsy Bitsy, Teeny Weeny, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” to “Chapel of Love,” “Hava Nagila,” “Secret Agent Man,” “I Will Survive,” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” There were actually a lot of songs that I’ve always liked, individually, so for me there was a bit of nostalgia value just hearing some of them again. But the show itself never engaged me. It never made me care about the characters. There wasn’t any meaningful arc. The characters did not seem to grow or learn much, or evolve in a way to involve me. The show told us that these four women supposedly played gigs in past years “up and down the Jersey coast.” (And even that line of dialog felt wrong; no one from New Jersey, where I’ve lived almost my whole life, would say “Jersey coast”—the words that inevitably are connected in New Jersey are “Jersey shore.”)
The four women sang one random song after another—often executed very well, beautifully harmonized (I give arranger/music director Baker great credit)—and recited some of the most artificial-sounding exposition I’ve heard on stage. They might tell us, for example, that someone fell in love and it didn’t work out, and I felt that the only reason those lines existed were to serve as a very obvious song cue. And the dialog got pretty contorted at times, just to be able to set up one unrelated song after another. After a while, it felt like an endless concert. I was counting songs in the program, seeing how many were left. And I was envying the couple next to me, who walked out at intermission; they’d had enough.
The staging was awfully static, too, with so many numbers performed by the women standing in a row, as far upstage as possible. I wish director/choreographer Roderick had mixed things up more—made more use of the whole big stage (which, incidentally, has a couple of hydraulic platforms, which went unused—another missed opportunity). The women—Katy Blake, Anne Fraser Thomas, Joanna Young, and Karyn Quakenbush—got some beautiful ensemble blends, and occasional chances to shine individually.
But even there, opportunities were squandered. The best singer in the bunch, Katy Blake—what a wonderful, first-rate voice she has; I would have enjoyed a solo concert by her more than this ungainly revue—finally got a great solo number to show what she could do, singer/songwriter Melanie’s “What Have they Done to My Song, Ma?” (Incorrectly—and carelessly—titled in the show’s program as “Look What You’ve Done to My Song, Ma.”) But, even then, as soon as she began to establish the number, the script required her to go into some pointless, unnecessary exposition, sabotaging the whole performance. It was frustrating to watch; interrupting her singing with all of that dialog did not serve the song well, it did not serve the singer well, it did not serve the show well. And with a star who has voice like that, you’d think the director would want to let her sing one superior song all the way through.
The show does include some very appealing songs. But none of the songwriters are credited in the program, which is monstrously unfair; the whole show is built upon their creations.
If you are of a certain age, you may feel some nostalgia once again hearing numbers like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” “Where the Boys Are,” and yes, even, “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” These were originally written, arranged, and performed by pros. Baker’s fresh arrangements often evoke the good qualities of the original recordings. And there are moments that work well.
But I don’t want to overstate how much nostalgic pleasure the show presents. Many of these songs were recorded definitively by others. Hearing “Mambo Italiano,” for example, triggered memories for me of Rosemary Clooney, who made it famous; “Where the Boys Are” triggered memories of Connie Francis; “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” triggered memories of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. And, while the four middle-aged white women in this show sang it pleasantly enough, they certainly didn’t make me forget Gaye and Terrell, and it wasn’t clear why they were even singing that particular song at that moment, other than to perform a hit.
Even the slightest songs in the show were originally recorded with care and craftsmanship, and they became hits for a reason. Even a bubblegum pop song like “Itsy Bitsy…”—which was a number-one hit in 1960—had been developed with care. It was written by Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss (who also wrote “Catch a Falling Star” and other hits). And consummate professional Bugs Bower—who arranged that catchy number and picked the backup singers and musicians—worked hard to showcase the 16-year-old singer, Brian Hyland, as effectively as possible. The whole country wound up singing along.
I sat through a lot of The Bikinis thinking, “I might just as well be at home, listening to the original recordings of these songs, which had more personality and flair. Why am I listening to these women singing these nice, but often less distinctive, cover-band versions of the songs?”
Category: Musical Theatre Reviews, New York (State), New York (State) Theatre, Regional