I’ve no idea what the weather was like in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district the summer of 1967, but America’s political climate was hot indeed. The total number of U.S. troops in Vietnam had reached 475,000 with the number and size of anti-war demonstrations increasing in equal proportion on our home turf. Cleveland and Newark saw race rioting and looting in the streets and 7000 National Guard were brought in to restore law and order to a riot-ravaged Detroit. As for the San Francisco district known as The Haight, its streets and parks were full of “tribes” of pro-peace “flower children,” whose use of recreational drugs gave Haight-Ashbury the affectionately stoned nickname of “Hashbury.”

Musical theater fans are, of course, familiar with this era through Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, which debuted off-Broadway only a month after that summer of political protest (with its accompanying messages of peace, love, and understanding) turned into fall.

Now, forty-four years later, Roger Bean (the creative force behind the nostalgic musical hits The Marvelous Wonderettes, The Andrews Brothers, and Life Could Be A Dream) creates his own jukebox-musical look back at that Hashbury summer of ’67 in Summer Of Love, now getting a big-stage World Premiere at Long Beach’s Musical Theatre West under the assured direction of its multitalented creator.

As with Bean’s previous smashes, Summer Of Love strings together Top Forty hits, but unlike the lighter, frothier Wonderettes or the boys who sang that “Life Could Be A Dream,” this time there’s not only a good deal more plotline but considerably more depth, resulting in a musical that (and I risk being accused of heresy by Hair fanatics) I enjoyed even more than the iconic Tribal Love-Rock Musical, though the two shows could easily interchange a number of characters.

Both musicals call their band of flower people “The Tribe,” and while Hair’s entered to the strains of “Aquarius,” Summer Of Love’s flower children arrive in an honest-to-goodness VW van, joining voices to celebrate “Grazing In The Grass”—it’s a gas, can you dig it? This tribe, with names like Saige, Dizzy, Donovan, and Rufus, soon find a stranger in their midst, a young woman in a filthy bridal gown, who arrives asking for directions “to the nearest Howard Johnson’s, please?”

Instead of a “Walk three blocks and turn left” answer, this fish out of water is offered pot tokes by a dozen or so tribe members as their leader River (Eric Anderson) asks Holly a sincere if cryptic, “Why the mojo for the hojo?” Like a real-life Dorothy arriving in Oz, Sausalito’s Holly (Melissa Mitchell) quickly realizes that she’s not in the suburbs anymore. This well-brought-up bride-to-be has arrived in her own Emerald City, aka Hippie Hills, aka Hashbury, aka San Francisco’s fabled Haight.

Holly soon learns that everything she has is theirs, as tribe members rifle through her suitcase and begin dividing up her stuff until halted by Mother Nature, aka Mama (Victoria Strong), who gives Holly a “hatful of happiness from the universe of love” and explains to the privileged daughter of the upper middle class that the reason they’re living on common ground in the park is that they are just (song cue) “Everyday People.”

Perhaps sensing that a Howard Johnson’s isn’t really where she wants to be right now, Holly agrees to stay “just for the night,” and though she maintains steadfastly that she’s “not running from anything” but is “just on a short vacation,” she later reveals her need to “get out of this merry-go-round” and “get on where I’m bound” in “Theme From Valley Of The Dolls.”

It doesn’t take Holly long to realize that life in Hippie Hills isn’t anything like the one she’s used to. Afro-sporting Saige (Christine Horn) may be dating River, but she’s not his only girlfriend. “He’s the guy your mother warned you about,” Saige cautions Holly, who realizes she’s not alone in her flight from suburbia when Mama informs her that “everybody on Hippie Hill is running away from something,” then gives her musical advice to “Make Your Own Kind Of Music.”

Hashbury turns out to be a popular destination for Gray Line tour busses, whose sightseers the Tribe welcome with BRING THE TROOPS HOME protest signs and a chorus of Edwin Starr’s “War,” led by Black Power figure Rufus (Frank Lawson).

Other Tribe members include ditzy flower child Janis (Callie Carson), who hands out origami flowers with fortune cookie sayings on each petal and Daisy (Katrice Gavino), a young Asian who has taken a vow of silence until there is peace, a cue for Janis to belt out “One Tin Soldier” as Daisy dances, finally collapsing in sobs at the end of the song. (Yes indeed, Summer Of Love does have its darker moments.)

Holly develops a special bond with Coyote (Michael J. Willett), a sassy gay teen who informs her in no uncertain terms that, “Honey, not even Medea’s children are as tragic as that dress,” which he soon “redesigns” into a mini-dress while giving her long locks “Hairapy.” Coyote then asks Holly if she doesn’t want “Somebody To Love,” revealing at the song’s powerful conclusion that he’s found his own same-sex somebody in Donovan (James May).

Anyone who expects Holly not to be found by her abandoned fiancé clearly has not read the Romantic Comedy Handbook, for jilted groom Curtis (Doug Carpenter) soon arrives, confessing that “This Guy’s In Love With You” just before accusing the Tribe of being nothing but “a bunch of freaks living with no rules.” Curtis’s intolerance being the last straw, Holly informs him in no uncertain terms (and in song) that they travel to the beat of a “Different Drum,” that she just wants him to “Let Me Be,” and that she has decided to stay with the tribe.

Since this is only the end of Act One, anything is possible for Holly, for Curtis, and for everyone else during Summer Of Love’s second act, which includes song highlights “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair),” “Dream A Little Dream Of Me,” “Piece Of My Heart,” and “One.” As in Hair, there’s an LSD trip sequence, with “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Spinning Wheel,” and “White Rabbit” preceding a morning-after wakeup call to “Darkness Darkness” and a montage of images of the darker side of the late 1960s.

It’s hard to imagine a stronger cast for Summer Of Love’s World Premiere than the one assembled by Musical Theatre West, headed by L.A.-to-Broadway transplant Anderson, making a welcome (albeit brief) return to the West Coast in an all-around terrific “peace, love, and sexual healing” performance. Premier leading man Carpenter gives his thrilling baritone a nifty “character” touch that fits stuffed shirt Curtis to a T, and the exquisite Mitchell’s gorgeous belt makes for a striking contrast with her romcom ingénue role. Speaking of belts, you won’t hear stronger ones than Carson’s (“One Tin Soldier”), Horn’s (“Everyday People” “Dream A Little Dream Of Me”), or Alyssa M. Simmons’ (“Crystal Blue Persuasion”), the latter song a duet between Simmons’s Willow and a delightfully hippy-dippy Scott Kruse as the fittingly named Dizzy. Willett continues to prove himself outrageously charismatic and triple-threat talented, and it’s always a pleasure to see the marvelous (and once again bewigged) May on our stages, especially following his fine work as Claude in the award-winning Chance Theater revival of Hair. Gavino proves a graceful dancer and Lawson a powerful soul artist. As for musical theater leading lady extraordinaire Strong, she is once again a vocal wonder in the role of Mama, and probably the only character or performer ever to have declared “Only an asshole is afraid of the truth” in a Musical Theatre West production.

Summer Of Love benefits greatly from musical directors Michael Borth (also musical arranger/orchestrator)and Michael Paternostro, and the ever varied and exciting choreography of Lee Martino.

Scenic designer Michael Carnahan fills the Carpenter Center stage with a huge, acid-trippy, multi-purpose set, made even more psychedelically vivid by Jean-Yves Tessier’s vibrant lighting design, which includes multicolored florescents, garlands of Christmas lights, and flower “decals” projected onto the stage, in addition to a bunch of sensational LSD trip lighting effects preceding a stark white morning after. Shon LeBlanc’s late ‘60s costumes are, needless to say, a nostalgic visual treat. Julie Ferrin’s sound design is once again impeccable. Other designers/techies deserving thumbs up include technical director Kevin Clowes, wigs designer Mark Travis Hoyer, projections designer Lianne Arnold, stage manager Nathan Genung, and assistant stage manager Mary Ritenhour. Bets Malone is assistant to the director and Bradley Benjamin is assistant to the choreographer.

Kudos to Roger Bean for taking chances with an edgier new musical, one which could well irk those who supported America’s involvement in Vietnam to the bitter end, and those who may be uncomfortable with the show’s rawer language and sexuality than has been the case in any of his previous confections. As a film, Summer Of Love would surely be rated PG-13 for language, sexuality, and drug use, and I say “Way to go!”

I enjoyed every minute of Summer Of Love, a summer that was a good deal more exciting than my own at the age of seventeen, just graduated from Santa Monica High school and on my way to UCLA. Summer Of Love made me nostalgic for what was and what might have been had I gone to San Francisco with flowers in my hair, and has me once more celebrating the excitement of welcoming a brand new American musical into our midst.

Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.
–Steven Stanley
April 3, 2011
Photos: Alysa Brennan

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