Wipeout: “Surf the Musical”

All photos: © Scott Roeben

Surf the Musical officially washed ashore last night at Planet Hollywood and one can only hope this bit of flotsam goes out with the next ebb tide. Although it’s not quite as craptastic as a four-song media preview suggested, that’s a relative compliment indeed. Like musical pemmican, Surf compresses over 25 Beach Boys songs into approximately 90 minutes. How is this done? By dint of a simple, Do Your Own Jukebox Musical formula that you can try at home. It goes like this: A) song; B) five lines of dialogue; C) lame song cue; D) next song. Repeat two-dozen times and you have Surf. Need to cram “Help Me, Rhonda” in there? Easy! Just call one of the characters Rhonda (wickedly talented Nikki Tuazon). Want to motivate “In My Room”? Have the heroine get sent to her room. Is “Don’t Worry, Baby” kinda weird for a father/daughter scene? Screw dramaturgy! This gig’s about scoring some bread, man.

To call librettist Burton Young‘s nonsensical book rudimentary and trivial would be a libel upon rudiments and a heinous insult to trivia. It’s got slightly less logic than The Castle of Fu Manchu and 100% fewer ninjas:

Sorry. I just watched that pile of crap last night and it was still more fun than Surf, which eats dirt from China (to quote Back to the Beach). That’s not the fault of the incredibly talented and flexible cast …. with one debilitating exception. No, the blame can be laid at the feet of1) whoever conceptualized Surf, 2) director Kristin Hanggi, who confuses the creators of Pet Sounds with the camptastic aesthetic of myriad American International Pictures beach-party movies from the Sixties and 3) the Beach Boys themselves, who took the money and ran. The artistic success of Jersey Boys can be chalked up, in part, to the active involvement of Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio. Similarly, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus ran Mamma Mia! with an iron fist, all to that show’s betterment.

Surf‘s girl-loves-car narrative is low camp from start to finish, aimed at people who want to clap along to several dozen Beach Boys songs and don’t give a tinker’s damn what happens in between. It’s certainly not for anyone who experienced or cares about the Sixties. (Speaking of which, a big Afro wig and a Peter Max-inspired backdrop are anachronistic for 1962, the show’s nominal setting.) In keeping with the mercenary attitude of Surf, Gregory Gale‘s costumes appear to have been culled from the pages of an Archie comic book and RJ Durell‘s ants-in-pants choreography is mostly insipid twitching, saving its best moves for the obligatory, megamix finale — a pure Mamma Mia! glam-rock ripoff that brings down the curtain with forced joie de vivre. (“Dance, customer monkeys, dance!”) And if your show is called Surf, shouldn’t there be some, like, y’know, surfing in it? Just maybe? The title really ought to be Hot Rod The Musical, considering the inclusion of two — count ’em — car races and one crash.

Hanggi evidently slept in the day they taught “focus” in Stage Direction 101. Her diffuse, hyperactive mise-en-scene is of the Cirque du Soleil 12-things-happening-simultaneously school. Luckily for ticket buyers, that means you’ll have a better view from the cheap seats, where you can take in the entire stage picture at a single glance. (Watching from down from was like being mid-court during a tennis match.) You’re also far less likely to get hit by one of the many beach balls which bombard audience members at the beginning and end of Surf. Further exacerbating the ADD problem are the five-tiered, 160-panel video screens on which most of the scenery is projected. During the first quarter of the show, they move more than do the performers, who don’t deserve to be upstaged in that manner. The best use of video imagery is when it simulates a Ferris wheel ride –subliminal product placement for Gary Loveman‘s Linq wheel? — thereby achieving the one thing conventional scenery cannot. (An animated car race is, however, risible.)

Both singly and in the aggregate, the cast is of stellar quality. The one, unavoidable, disastrous exception is mopey male ingenue Marshal Kennedy Carolan, hoarse and unsteady of voice, and with all the personality of a Justin Bieber cardboard cutout. Carolan’s inadequacy was obvious long before opening, made moreso by the fact that every other male solo voice in the cast is superior to his. This could have been fixed and I have no idea why it wasn’t. Love interest Lauren Zakrin (left), a longtime understudy, is obviously more than ready for the big time. A human sunbeam, she’s got a big, buttery voice and an authoritative stage presence. Most of the actors aren’t given characters to play, just clichés to embody and attitudes to strike. A couple break through by dint of behaving like recognizable human beings rather than aliens from Planet Surf. One is the endearing Riley Costello, playing Zarkin’s kid brother. He’s got an outstanding falsetto, a buzzy middle register and — tellingly — drew the night’s loudest ovation. And I never, ever thought I’d being writing anything to the effect of “Adrian Zmed is the best thing in the show” or even close thereto. His easygoing manner, experience and textured, well-maintained voice supply needed warmth. Zmed’s delivery of “Hang on to Your Ego” supplies the first genuine thrill of the night. Later, he’s given “Heroes and Villains” for no imaginable reason other than it had to be in there, somewhere, storyline be damned. (Again, the Mamma Mia! comparison is instructive: There was no narrative hook for “Fernando” so it was left aside.)

Playing the requisite dad from Squaresville, Robert Torti is perfectly deadpan. Lead dancer Tuazon sure has moves, not to mention animal magnetism that damn near steals the show, working it like there’s no tomorrow. There’s one other thing to be said for this Mount Everest of piffle: If you wanted a sequel to Viva Elvis™, congratulations: Your wish has been granted.

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