The Bikinis summer show at the Long Wharf is a good-natured nostalgia trip to the beach and beyond.
As scantily filled out as the beachwear that inspires its title, The Bikinis is a specific type of modern touring musical, a type that has frequently vacationed (that is, toured) in Connecticut in the summertime. Like Menopause: The Musical and Girls Night: The Musical before it, The Bikinis takes old pop songs and uses them to illustrate tales of female bonding, empowerment and nostalgia. The genre—not so much “jukebox musical” as “jukebox support group”—is so tightly refined that some songs are shared by more than one of these shows. The disco classics “I Will Survive” and “It’s Raining Men,” for instance, are found in both Girls Night: The Musical and The Bikinis.
Where The Bikinis is bold is in how it tells a chronological story spanning several decades. We are witnessing the reunion of a girl group called The Bikinis, which began as a group of high school friends during the peak of the ‘60s girl group boom (“The Shoop Shoop Song,” “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” “Be My Baby” and “Chapel of Love” are all referenced) and are now doing a special show in order to save the New Jersey shoreline trailer park where they grew up. Turns out that not all the women agree that the park should be saved. That’s the mild conflict that fuels the negligible plot. What really holds the show together is the set list. It follows a Baby Boomer coming-of-age theme rather than any specific genre, starting cute with novelty tunes such as “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and moving up through the more suggestive “Under the Boardwalk” and “Where the Boys Are” to a second act filled with psychedelia (“Incense and Peppermints”) and protest songs (“Simple Song of Freedom”).
This production has an uncommonly accomplished cast whose members may be familiar to longtime New Haven theatergoers. Valerie Fagan (who plays the endearing everywoman Annie) was Aldonza to Robert Goulet’s Don Quixote in a national tour of Man of La Mancha that played the Shubert back in the late ‘90s. Lori Hammel (Annie’s petulant little sister Jodi) has been through Connecticut in tours of Mamma Mia (a show she’s also done on Broadway) and Forbidden Broadway, and has sung in concert with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. Regina Levert (Barbara, the sole African-American in the show, gaining her some choice solos during the ‘70s and ‘80s segments) was in the national tour of Fame the Musical at the Oakdale in 1999 and appears on that show’s original cast recording. Karyn Quackenbush (the pixie-ish Karla), like Hammel, was in the long-running Off Broadway production of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change (a show that originated at the Long Wharf) and has many other New York credits.
Hammel, Levert and Quackenbush all appeared in the original production of The Bikinis when the show premiered at Goodspeed Musicals’ Norma Terris Theater in Chester last year. Having been done so recently and freshly and nearby, the production is slicker and more tightly staged than, say, the Smoky Joe’s Café which the Long Wharf booked as a summer diversion last year. The show’s co-author Ray Roderick—a frequent director at Goodspeed, where he brought new life and creativity to My One and Only and 42nd Street—directed and choreographed this Bikinis tour. While the set is sparse and the modest four-person cast makes big dance numbers impossible, the company is given plenty to do. For instance, they’re barely ever in bikinis, opting instead for a variety of costumes, masquerading as everyone from Frankie Avalon (for a long teen-beach-movie parody, replete with fake boobs for the Annette proxy) to Elvis Presley to a short-tempered mafia boss so The Bikinis can flesh out a success story that takes the endearing Annie, Barbara, Jodi and Karla from trailer park to local radio fame to lots of life changes and back to the trailer park.
The music is the real star of The Bikinis. The show tears through over 30 pop hits, plus a handful of clever style-parody originals by Ray Roderick and co-author James Hindman. For fans of the original material, how these songs are arranged and performed may be more compelling than anything in the script. The four-piece band consists of two keyboardists, a guitarist/bassist and a drummer. The keyboards handle all the melodies and riffs, so some musical touchstones (the bassline in “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” surf guitar solos) are lost in the mix. Song selection-wise, it’s middle-of-the-road, upper-middle-class stuff: ‘50s radio hits but no rockabilly, keyboard psychedelia but no garage rock, R&B and folk but no blues, disco but no punk.
There’s little room for such fringe activities in any case, and a wealth of sun-and-fun material to plumb. The Bikinis, and other examples of this hardy subgenre, have this down to a science. There are familiar refrains, occasional bursts of audience participation which enliven the bare-bones staging but aren’t allowed to overwhelm it, a nonstop cascade of cheesy jokes about getting old (and watching your husband get older), a cast and plot which invites average-folks-getting-by empathy, and a warm happy, everybody-get-together ending.
A thin garment to support a night’s entertainment, but somehow it all fits. The Bikinis may not show a lot of hipness, but its heart is in the right place.
The Bikinis is at the Long Wharf Theatre mainstage, 222 Sargent Dr., through July 27.