In the depths of fall with winter fast approaching, it seems an ideal time for a lighthearted musical about summer to turn the clock back a few months to sunny skies, warm weather, and fun at the beach. While the new musical Beach Radio at the CAP21 Theater wants no more than this - and tries very, very hard to achieve it - it succeeds, at best, only in part.
Drey Shepperd's book finds six friends spending the summer of 1989 at the Jersey shore after graduating from high school; it's their last summer together before college and careers will drive them apart. Though they're all concerned about their futures, for the moment, they have pretty much just one thing on their minds: sex. As is perhaps predictable, there's much angst and switching of partners until everyone is more or less satisfied with who they have.
The story isn't a bad one - many musicals have been constructed around less. Beach Radio is very lucky to have Larry Fuller as its director and choreographer; his distractingly amusing dancing (two characters even do a moonwalk at one point!) and simple, straightforward production values suggesting a high school vision of the world are all designed to highlight a sense of innocent fun, a sense not often found in Shepperd's libretto.
The book lacks focus. It's not a bubble gum-chewing satire like Grease or a serious exploration of passing into adulthood like last year's Summer of '42; this is simply adult-level writing projected onto 18 year-olds. With one exception, the kids are all so sexually experienced and frank about what they do, they don't come across as kids; there are few hints of confusion or fright about such a very difficult concept. But when they must deal with real relationship issues - romantic, parental, or strictly friendship - the actors and their characterizations come across as more textured and enjoyable.
Shepperd's lyrics are often as overwrought as his dialogue - "The sky is clear / And so is our skin" and "You need to find a real romance / To start a party in your pants" are two examples. Gerard Kenny's music, though, is never inappropriate - as musical directed by Aaron Hagan, it bounces along with a tinge of the Beach Boys, and a wide dose of generic 1980s pop, so perfect for the setting.
While the other production elements (Ray Klausen's simple beach set, complete with pier, Alvin Colt's costumes, and Richard Winkler's summer-warm lights) never clash as dangerously, Beach Radio's primary assets are the actors cast in the roles of the seven young adults around whom the story revolves: Meredith McCasland, Doug Kreeger, Ann Hu, Nicole Martone, Jonathan Todd Ross, Noah Weisberg, and Meyer deLeeuw. Each one is highly talented, and sings and dances with such enthusiasm it's often difficult not to lose yourself in the warmth and friendship pouring from the stage. A lack of friendship and love could sink many a show like this, but here is unfailingly right.
While all the actors have their moments in the spotlight, two in particular stand out: deLeeuw delivers the show's most beautiful and heartfelt song, "Back Home," with a charming simplicity and a welcome earnestness. Later, Martone takes the stage to deliver the roof-raiser "Burger King," detailing the monetary (and less tangible) benefits to be derived from the well-known fast food chain. Directors take note: If you need a woman with a killer belt and a razor-edged comic personality to stop your show cold, Ms. Martone will have no problems whatsoever.
The show's last scene, at the end of the summer, finds the seven friends gleefully taking pictures with the radio sex therapist (Rosemary McNamara), who had been advising on the best ways to handle their adolescent urges and turmoil. Though Ms. McNamara's character had been known only as a voice up to that point, the scene's youthful abandon showing the desire to retain memories of the memorable - and busy - summer they all shared sums up Beach Radio much better than most scenes before it. If Beach Radio cools off and tightens up (the program suggests the show remains a work in progress), it could still be the joyous tribute to youthful summers it wants to be. Right now it seems as if the show - like the kids it celebrates - has spent too much time in the sun.