Thursday, November 10, 2011

Beach Blanket Babylon

(Curt Branom as Michele Bachmann in the nation's longest-running musical revue.  Photo by Rick Markovich.)

I went to BeachBlanket Babylon for the first time last weekend expecting to come away with lots of hoity-toity criticisms.  I wound up having a grand ol’ time in spite of myself.  The musical revue (a wisp of a story that offers as many excuses to break into song as possible) has been spoofing pop culture and politics since 1974 (the nation’s longest for a show of this kind), and it’s easy to see why it’s lasted so long.

The Chronicle describes BBB as “a constant cascade of showstoppers,” and the first one starts about thirty seconds in. They’re oldies and standards—everything from Elvis to Madonna to Les Mis—sung by voices that make you think, “How is this performer not a rock star?”  Though there’s not a dud in the ensemble, Renee Lubin, in particular, who’s been performing with the company for 26 years, so owns the stage that your nerves are already tingling before she’s finished making her entrance. 

But you only get a verse and a chorus—sometimes less—before a door opens, another soloist appears, and the music changes. With the focus changing every few seconds, I found myself giving up on taking notes.  “Theater for the twitter crowd” is not a phrase I like to use, but this show is more fickle than the most distractible audience member (which might be my mother, who was there, and rapt). 

What really makes it hard to look away, or unfreeze your pen, are the overwhelming costumes.  The performers’ clothes, wigs and hats often doubled their size, both in width and height.  Some headpieces arguably included enough props to qualify as an entire set.  So cumbersome are these cephalo-worlds that they mandate a particular posture and walk to keep them afloat, and there’s almost as much pleasure in watching the balancing act as in watching the event itself.

Equally crucial to show’s success is how accessible its parodies are.  You only have to have heard one thing about the subject to get the joke; they’re mostly jests we’ve already heard a million times already but still love to laugh at.  Sometimes what makes them funny is that they’re such apt distillations of the way we think about (or stereotype) a personality.  Sarah Palin’s costume, a red bathing suit and a gun, is so effective that she almost didn’t have to say anything.  (If only that worked in real life.)  The jokes also cross generational and political divides; only once or twice did I have to nudge a companion to ask for a cultural reference.  Some of the jokes—on Bill Clinton or Barbra Striesand—feel especially weathered, which got me thinking: What it is that makes some caricatures make it into permanent pop culture comedy repertoire, while others lose their humor within weeks or months?

My one major qualm with the production is the way it deploys race.  If you decide your show needs a witch doctor, why make the one black man in your large ensemble play him?  Ought you really make that same black actor “pass” as Hispanic in another character?  If you want a black woman to play Coco Chanel, how much mileage do you really get out of a “Cocoa Chanel” pun?

BBB is already so funny and entertaining that I felt like it could easily dispense with moronic jokes like these and focus on what it does best:  rousing pop renditions performed under a canopy of hats and wigs.


  1. What absolutely makes it harder to attending away, or unfreeze your pen, are the cutting costumes.

    Needle Arts

  2. Indeed. It could well be said that just as every song is a showstopper, so is every costume.

  3. Also: What did you mean by cutting?