Saturday, October 3, 2009

Crazy Doin's Up Malibu Way

Posted by Bruce Miller
In 1959, the movie Gidget became a major hit starring Sandra Dee. The film was about a slowly developing girl (half girl, half midget, hence Gidget) who tries to get the boys on Malibu Beach to teach her how to surf. One of the boys, the Great Kanaka, is a surfing legend. His pal, Moondoggie, becomes Gidget’s boyfriend. Two sequels, Gidget Goes Hawaiian and Gidget Goes to Rome followed in 1961 and 1963.

In 1965, Sally Field made her debut as the TV Gidget, in a one-season series that went on to enjoy immense popularity as a cult hit. It also established Sally Field as a star. Gidget’s brother-in-law in the series, Peter Duell playing John, was a psychiatry student.

In 1976, Sally Field won an Emmy Award for playing the title role in the television movie Sybil. Sybil is about a young woman who suffers from multiple personality disorder as a result of the psychological trauma she suffered as a child.

Charles Busch was born in 1954, grew up on Sally Field as Gidget and Sally Field as Sybil. In 1987, he wrote the Off Broadway hit Psycho Beach Party as an answer to the question, what if Gidget and Sybil were the same girl? Psycho Beach Party is set in Malibu in 1962. The slowly developing girl who wants surfing lessons is now named Chicklet, the surfing legend is now known as the Great Kanaka, the soon-to-be-boyfriend (who is a psychology student) is now named Star Cat instead of Moondoggie. And Chicklet has a few surprises up her psyche.

I went to see Psycho Beach Party this evening at TheatreVCU. It was a crazy ride. Here’s what I enjoyed:

It was great to see a play without a serious bone in its body. Charles Busch employs a light touch as he spoofs Hollywood’s beach party and psycho movies/TV shows simultaneously. He uses the innocent background of 1960s teen flicks to skewer all the sexual mores in sight (or not in sight as the case would have been in the early 60s). My good friend Steve Perigard’s direction, likewise, is lighter than air.

I laughed out loud in several places, and the VCU student audience LOVED the play’s irreverence and tongue-in-cheek raunchiness.

From the second she walked on stage as B-movie starlet Bettina Barnes, my friend Sarah Pruden understood and exemplified the style of the piece with every ounce of her being. She nailed it from her first word to her last. Not an easy task for someone born decades after the work being spoofed.

Tommy Callan and Kyle Cornell played two young women in a completely effortless (and effective) manner. There was nothing self-conscious or campy about their performances, which seemed just right.

My buddy Richie Gregory and Dallas Tolentino had a touching chemistry as the two young men who, midst their macho beach maneuverings, discover that they’re more than just friends.

The terrific set by Adam Karvatakis established just the right sea, sand and surfer shack ambiance, and the wonderful period music (selected by Sound Designer Susan Ralmo?) served the action beautifully.

The high energy of the entire cast and the hard work of all involved made this a real crowd pleaser. Psycho Beach Party was never meant to be great theatre—God forbid—but it was a hoot and a holler and a breath of fresh Pacific air. There’s one more performance tomorrow afternoon for those who want to join in on the fun.

--Bruce Miller

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