If you've been longing for a return to the halcyon days of the musical theatre rock opera, you'll be in seventh heaven at People Are Wrong!, which just opened at the Vineyard Theatre. Whether your personal preference runs closer to Jesus Christ Superstar or The Who's Tommy, this Vineyard/Target Margin co-production is a great way to get a quick fix of the genre before it disappears for another decade or two.
If your tastes run in a different direction, you might be in trouble. While fans of the rock group They Might Be Giants will find that attendance is probably mandatory - one of its members (John Flansburgh) stars - it's a less certain proposition for fans of more traditional musical theatre, at least in the first three-quarters of this intermissionless 105-minute American tribal gardening-rock show.
It's during this time that the almost haphazardly quirky writing from Julia Greenberg and Robin Goldwasser spins its meandering story. The unmarried Russ and Terri (Flansburgh and Erin Hill), from New York City, buy a home in the Catskills, and while trying to get their lawn renovated, they fall in with a New Age gardening cult, the supreme leader of which - named Xanthus (David Driver) - wants to build a spaceship to return to his true home in the Sixth Dimension. And he'll be leaving from, if you hadn't guessed, Russ and Terri's lawn.
Got all that? There are also, of course, a few expected eccentrics, such as chainsaw sculptor Chainsaw Dick (Chris Anderson), and agricultural supply store manager Joyce (Goldwasser) and her three employees (Connie Petruk, Todd Almond, and Tricia Scotti), all of whom are a member of Xanthus's cult. "Xanthus saves," Joyce sings, "What does he save? That's not the point. Don't question his ways."
Okay, it's not exactly a stinging jab at groupthink or pop-psychology addiction. But if it's your idea of humor, you'll probably get a kick out of this show. Other numbers detail everything from Xanthus's deep love for plants, the matchless skills of a high-profile wedding planner, and even a modern riff on Noah's ark. Musical directors Jeremy Chatzky and Joe McGinty do a fine job with the three-piece band, and the cast never lacks energy when it comes to putting across the songs. Their acting is somewhat less convincing, but as none of the show seems intended to be taken seriously, it's not a debilitating problem.
More damaging is David Herskovits's unimaginative direction, an uneasy amalgam of rock-concert clichés (further embodied in Jody Ripplinger's choreography) and flower-power emotionalism. Lenore Doxsee's lights work overtime at creating the proper atmosphere, as does Brian Speiser's "louder is better" sound design; Mattie Ullrich's costumes are less inspired, almost improvisational in appearance. The main feature of G.W. Mercier's messy set design is the Astroturf-covered stage, but aside from invoking makeshift production values, it's hard to see exactly what he's aiming for.
If the goal of the show is simply to give the audience an old-fashioned good time - if you consider the late 60s about as old-fashioned as it gets - the last 20 minutes or so do deliver. It's at that point that the coruscating madness of the show's individual elements coalesces into something uniquely worthwhile - predictable plot twists seem like fresh ideas, unforeseen developments register as clever theatrical coups, and the performers and music become something surprisingly invigorating, even entertaining.
The ending is even almost worth sitting through the over-amplified monotony of the first 80 or so minutes, not a small achievement for a show with so few thoughts in its head and little distinctiveness in most of its writing. According to one of the show's early lyrics, "Though intentions are good, sometimes people are wrong." That's undoubtedly true, but in the case of the people behind People Are Wrong!, they aren't wrong all the time.