Without a doubt Musical Theatre West’s “Summer of Love,” written and directed by Roger Bean, entertains the audience. The evening waxes exuberant while the message, you’ve got to make your own kind of music, rings true. Some of us danced in our seats like Sesame Street puppets and sang along to songs that defined our youth. The set and the music sparkle. While the concept of and subsequent staging for the script is brilliant, its construction, man, is a major downer.
It works best as a tale of exploring options. It asks, “What makes up a family?” Here it does a nice job as it presents the various options (mind you, in the Sixties those options included the families Partridge and Manson). It suggests that a family is a person or a group of people to whom you can open your up your heart. It also reminds us that all families are dysfunctional, from the female lead’s mother who drinks in the morning to the kleptomaniac who steals her purse.
Though story had a plausible beginning and a serviceable end, it didn’t have a coherent middle. At the beginning, Holly (Melissa Mitchell) has just skirted across the Golden Gate Bridge from Sausalito to San Francisco. She wears her wedding dress; it appears to be stained with blood but, alas, it’s just an errant Bloody Mary. She faces a middle-class crisis – do what’s expected (marry Curtis - Doug Carpenter) or do what she doesn’t-yet-know-what-she-wants. She chances upon a coterie of anti-Establishment Merry Pranksters who live in the Haight-Ashbury and decides to spend the night with them. It ends when she and her loyal, not-so-square Curtis (thanks to a stamp of acid) decide to chuck everything planned and chart their own adventure in the City by the Bay. It’s a story of exploration and discovery as relevant now, in a time of war, as it was then.
It’s the in-between that’s muddled. First, the pace felt stylized if not superficial, heavy on effect, without much substance. Second, though the cast – especially Carpenter who made his Curtis morph from an Ozzie and Harriet to a Garden Party Ricky Nelson) did what they could with a clunky script, their characters are more stereotypical than credible, which also detracts from narrative traction. And third, we’re not sure if it’s Holly’s story or if it’s Doug’s story. Holly steals the first act, quickly doffing her wedding dress into a comely miniskirt. Her decision – push forward or return home? – holds us in thrall for the first act. In the second act though, Doug embarks on a 15-minute acid trip (amazing kaleidoscopic designs projected on the back wall; very cool, LSD-induced choreography; music to die for) that nonetheless buzzkills the narrative and leaves us wondering what happens to Holly’s down-the-rabbit-hole excursion.
The production feels like a Grateful Dead concert at the Oakland Coliseum. All that anticipation, all the people, music, and flashing lights and, by the end, you’re too stoned to remember what happened.
Performances are 8pm, Thu. – Sat, 2pm, Sat., 2pm Sun and 7pm on 7pm, Sun, Apr. 10. The show runs until Apr. 17. Tickets are $30 - $70. The Carpenter Center is located at 6200 Atherton St. For more info call 856-1999 ext. 4 or visit www.musical.org.