The ‘60s were a memorable decade of change. But years ending in zeros are rarely true inflection points. Many political historians point to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963 as the inception of that decade. President Lyndon Johnson was able to enact his and Kennedy’s agendas for civil rights and poverty into law; political parties were realigned with Southern Democrats shifting to Republican in rejection of civil rights advances; and the U.S. commitment to the Vietnam War swelled irreparably. Social historians note the impact that the Beatles had starting several weeks later. The ensuing British Invasion brought with it new music, lingo, hair styles, mores, and more. And the youth culture that began with Elvis Presley and Rock and Roll in the mid ‘50s exploded to become a dominant social and economic power.
“Shout! The Mod Musical” is a musical revue of the ‘60s shown through the experiences of five young adult women living in London, as conceived and curated by three American men (of course)! The songbook draws from tunes of the era, predominantly those popularized by English songbirds, especially Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark (“Wishin’ and Hopin’” and “Downtown” for starters.) The South Bay Musical Theatre cast brings strong voices, deft comedic skills, and great enthusiasm, resulting in a fine entertaining evening. Don’t expect the significance or sophistication of Sondheim or Hammerstein, but for those old enough to remember, it’s a frothy retreat into nostalgia. Younger people will get a slice of life snapshot of what it was like back in the day.
The show lacks a story arc. Whatever narrative glue is largely provided by the women writing letters to an advice columnist at “Shout” magazine, with spoken replies coming from the unseen columnist. The characters lack names but are identified by a particular color, which is dominant in the various outfits that each wears and relates to their behaviors. Orange, performed by Christina Bolognini, is domestic; Red, played by Melissa Momboisse, is a mess of youthful contradiction; Blue, portrayed by Heather Mae Steffen, is poised and beautiful – and she knows it; Green, rendered by Amanda Le Nguyen, is slutty; and Yellow, characterized by Jamie Gussman, is loud – and therefore, probably American!
Essentially, the show is an amalgam of skits full of the expected tropes, with music that often ties to each mini-drama. Not all work, but most produce the desired laughter. In one, a Paul McCartney groupie, Gussman, repeatedly stalks her prey, and even combs his trash, coming away with – you guessed it – his broken comb. In another favorite, characters are silhouetted against a back screen with Le Nguyen appearing as James Bond in “Coldfinger,” a takeoff on – well, you get it. One recurring pastiche is several scenes that borrow directly from “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In,” with music, action, and lights coming to a stop except for one spotlighted character who delivers a funny bit.
Several pantomimes, also spotlighted against an otherwise dark stage, work nicely. My favorite is Steffen’s reacting with increasing dejection to a disembodied man’s deep voice telling her how her skin is being ravaged by age. But in the end, she blossoms with hope and glee when the speaker offers the solution of purchasing his skin cream product. Of course, much of the advice given is tongue-in-cheek. An example is the reply to Momboisse’s sad but funny letter in which she declares herself ugly. The response is that there are things that are worse than being ugly – like being French.
The performers are quite convincing with their English accents, and overall have strong mid-range singing voices. As the performance proceeded, I found myself changing my mind on which artist had the best voice, which is a good thing. I might go with Bolognini. While the songs were well sung, raising the keys on some of them would have created more brightness and urgency in their voices, but perhaps the tradeoff would be a loss of power. Otherwise, they do a pretty resolute job within the limits of the material.
The creatives play a large role in the success of the production. Lee Ann Payne not only directs with a lively touch but choreographs a ton of movement and the dances of the day like the twist and the frug. Debra Lambert’s masterly musical and vocal direction includes harmony arrangements of the many ensembles as well as conducting and playing keyboards. Also, Y. Sharon Peng captures the period look of hair, makeup, and costumes, though more of the daring signature looks of Carnaby Street and Vidal Sassoon would work nicely.
“Shout! The Mod Musical,” created by Phillip George, David Lowenstein, and Peter Charles Morris with music written by numerous composers and produced by South Bay Musical Theatre, plays at Saratoga Civic Center, 13777 Fruitvale Ave., Saratoga, CA through October 16, 2021.
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
American Theatre Critics Association