The campy setting of these and various Elvis-by-the-seaside films is instantly familiar, with a signature style that includes sun-drenched Malibu shores, dune buggies, rival surfers and dialogue that makes Archie comic books sound like Noel Coward. (Compare them to the teen flicks of today, the likes of She's All That and the rest of the Freddie Prinze Jr oeuvre, and you can scarcely find any style to satirize.)
Directed by David Crowe, Psycho Beach Party nicely fits with the frivolity that Dad's Garage has come to specialize in, and even the outside of the theater is sporting luau decorations. Despite its forays into drag, S&M and multiple personality disorder, the production falls on the surprisingly mild side of outrageous, but still provides plenty of light entertainment for anyone who's been in the summer sun too long.
In a red, pig-tailed wig, Daniel May plays "Chicklet," a late bloomer among the teen beach bunnies. "She" explains that her nickname has nothing to do with chewing gum: "The other girls grew into chicks, but I became a chick-let." Chicklet becomes quickly caught up in the mystique of surfing and wants to shoot the tube herself, despite the derision of star surf bums Star Cat (Rob Beams) and the Great Kanaka (John Benzinger).
But our heroine is growing up in an abusive home, with Shawn Hale playing Chicklet's mother like Divine doing Faye Dunaway from Mommie Dearest. Before you can say "Sybil," Chicklet's displaying other personae, including a lusty femme fatale called Ann Bowman, who's cooking up a sinister plan.
Both guys in feminine garments, Hale and May offer two slightly different conceptions of drag. While Hale offers a business-as-usual female impersonation, May's Chicklet is a little different. Granted, he's a walking sight gag with his girl's swimsuit and masculine musculature, but having Chicklet played by a man almost works as a metaphor for an adolescent ugly duckling. "I'm built just like a boy!" she complains, putting on her top.
Psycho's sidekicks and supporting roles reveal the playwright's long memory for the beach party genre. Chicklet's pals include the oh-so-popular Marvel Ann (Stacy Melich) and the nerdy bookworm Berdine (Alison Hastings). Meanwhile, two of the male comic relief figures -- wiseguy Provoloney (Scott Warren) and husky, food-obsessed Yo-Yo (Christian Danley) -- begin feeling like more than "buddies" to each other.
Even though there's a mad shaver on the lose and a climactic scene with Chicklet under hypnosis -- dreamy Star Cat, we discover, took three semesters of Psychiatry -- Psycho's second act begins running out of steam. Having the cast do the Limbo and the Swim might be true to the period, but they make for rather tame dance numbers. There's the requisite surfing scene (the actors standing in front of a screen, like a fakey 1960s process-shot) and a talent show gone wrong, but you end up wanting more than Psycho delivers, like an actual musical number, a race on Dead Man's Curve, or even a cameo by a Paul Lynde-type.
Throughout, the cast commit themselves fully to their roles as sun-struck teens. Rescue and Recovery's Rob Beams gives Star Cat the amusingly proper combination of sensitivity, arrogance and vacancy, while, as Yo-Yo, Danley proves the theater season's most improbably dewy-eyed ingenue. Though Burdine's increasing fascination with existentialism (she calls Bettina "the feminine embodiment of the Nietzchean Superman") doesn't prompt many laughs, Hastings captures the role's kooky enthusiasm perfectly.
Originally titled Gidget Goes Psychotic, Psycho Beach Party proves broadly amusing, and you needn't be knowledgeable about the Gidget genre or admire drag shows to get a kick out of it. Perhaps some playwright a generation from now will give Baywatch the same treatment. u
Psycho Beach Party plays through July 22 at Dad's Garage Theatre Company, 280 Elizabeth St., with performances at 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 5 p.m. Sun. $12-15. 404-523-3141.