Gidget Goes Psycho at Psycho Beach Party
Also see Bob's review of School For Wives
Busch satirically marries the teenage beach musical comedies of the eighties with the psychological melodrama of Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie, tossing in a couple of other genres for good measure. Although the play includes a couple of songs, it is not a musical. The story set in 1962 centers on a needy, frustrated teenager, Chicklet, who wants to learn to be a surfer. As it turns out, Chicklet is psychotic, and, unbeknownst to her, she morphs into Ann Bowman, a hot, sexually raging dominatrix who attacks other members of the beach crowd, shaving off their hair, including, as we must be told, all the hair in the area of their pubes. As the plot thickens and is then resolved, Chicklet assumes any number of additional personalities, including that of her childhood self, as the lurid, pop psychology of Hitchcock takes its turn in the satiric sun. Chicklet is played here with verve and skill by the delightful and reliable Jenelle Sosa. It should not surprise you to learn that the role of Chicklet was created in 1986 by Charles Busch himself.
As I have noted in the past, gay camp is characterized by cross-dressing, gross exaggeration, vulgarity, slapstick and double entendre. It often satirizes our popular culture. Clearly, most of these elements are present here. However, with Jenelle Sosa playing Chicklet and Rebecca Moore playing her friend Marvel Ann (the only other female part played by a male, Michael Belanger, in the original production) have we lost the cross dressing? Hell, no. For on hand in two major roles originally played by females is the hilarious Harry Patrick Christian. There is a delicate art to the female impersonation aspect of Christian's performance that is hard to put into words. Suffice it to say that the accuracy, charm and precisely appropriate amount of wit in Christian's impersonation place him in the top rank of this specialty. Furthermore, Christian fully realizes the fractured personalities of Chicklet's mother, Mrs. Forrest. His other role is that of the much more appealing grade Z film Hollywood actress Bettina Barnes. The distinctiveness of these two performances is a treat to behold.
Rick Delaney's surf master Kanaka, Jen Ponton's frantic Chicklet-loving Berdine, and Stephen Medvidick's pre-med, temporary surf bum Star Cat are energetic and likeable. However, in the aggregate, the young supporting cast fails to display the precision and comic timing to bring out the best in Busch's writing.
Director Mark Spina keeps the proceedings humming along at a lively pace. Arnulfo Maldonado stretches a tight budget by employing eye catching projections. Maggie Baker has provided appropriate costumes. If Baker is responsible for Christian's costumes than higher praise is due to her.
It is notable that it is said that except for fear of copyright considerations, Psycho Beach Party would have been titled, Gidget Goes Psycho.
Although there is much that is clever and amusing here, Busch is more blunt and workman-like than his brilliant predecessor Charles Ludlum (as well as Paul Rudnick when he works in this genre). However, with Harry Patrick Christian on board, Psycho Beach Party can be heartily recommended to all adventurous theatre goers.
Psycho Beach Party (Thursday - Saturday 8 p.m. / Sunday 3 p.m.) through August 2, 2009 at the Theater Project at Union County College, 1033 Springfield Avenue, Cranford, New Jersey 07016; Box Office: 800-838-3006 ; General Information: 908-659-5189 ; online: www.TheTheaterProject.org; www.brownpapertickets.com
Psycho Beach Party by Charles Busch; directed by Mark Spina