No one sends up popular film genres with a campier (i.e. gayer) sensibility than Charles Busch, whether it’s the “Oriental” melodramas of Hollywood’s Golden Era in Shanghai Moon, or those ’50s/’60s Ross Hunter soap operas in Die! Mommy! Die!, or WWII “Women In Peril” thrillers in The Lady In Question, or the red-baiting propaganda films of the late ’40s/early ’50s in Red Scare On Sunset.

Psycho Beach Party is Busch’s tribute to Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, and Alfred Hitchcock (in Marnie mode), one which (like all the others above) offered the playwright a leading lady turn as its heroine. Yes, I said leading lady.

Busch himself played the role of “Chicket” and her various multiple personalities when Psycho Beach Party made its New York debut in 1987. Now Orange County audiences can meet its Gidget-wannabe heroine (and her numerous other faces) in STAGEStheatre’s small-stage revival, one that tries hard for laughs (and gets a considerable number of them) but veers too far from Busch’s intentions.

Taylor Stone is the beanpole-tall, flat-chested Chicklet, who wants nothing more than to learn surfing from local legend Kanaka (Adam Poynter), something her best friends (Jennifer Whitney as nerdy Berdine and Tiffie Starchild Polite as boy-crazy Marvel Ann) can’t quite fathom. A trio of surfer boys (Jeff Hyde as StarCat, Forrest Orta as Yo-Yo, and Anthony Orta as Provoloney) are never far from sight, though the latter two seem more interested in each other than in any of the abovementioned chicks or Chicklet. In fact, not even the incognito arrival of Hollywood sex kitten Bettina Barnes (Priscilla Amezola) can keep Yo-Yo’s and Provolone’s hands off each other.

It’s on one of Chicklet’s visits to Kanaka’s beach shack that her vampish alter ego Ann Bowman makes her first appearance, a voracious man eater of a W-O-M-A-N with an appetite for Kanaka, the latter of whom decides then and there to give Chicket the surfing instruction she’s been begging for, the better to have future encounters with dominatrix Ann.

Completing the cast is Nona Watson as Mrs. Forrest, Chicket’s mother and the quintessential 1950s housewife … as painted by Christina Crawford in Mommy Dearest.

Playwright Busch is quite specific in his author’s notes about the way Psycho Beach Party (and indeed any Busch comedy) should be played: “very ‘straight’ and uncampy but in a heightened emotional style.” No better examples of Busch done right are the film versions of Psycho Beach Party and Die! Mommy! Die!, both of which feature Busch in female leading roles, i.e. not in drag queen or female impersonator mode but simply playing them as a female actor would.

Under Nicole Dominguez’s direction, Whitney, Polite, and Forrest Orta are the most successful at adhering to the playwright’s wishes. Whitney makes Berdine an endearingly spunky ugly duckling, a sassy Polite never overplays Marvel Ann’s flirty ways, and the same can be said for Orta’s very sweet Yo-You, a role that in other hands might have become an over-the-top gay stereotype.  Though I enjoyed Poynter’s engaging take on Kanaka, his performance would benefit by being taken down a notch. Watson comes close to getting the Joan Crawfordesque Mrs. Forrest right, but her work is at least two notches too high for a Busch spoof.

The rest of the cast all deserve A+ for effort, dedication, and commitment, however their performances are either way too over-the-top or reveal a lack of stage experience.

Jon Gaw’s set is a simple but colorful, ingeniously designed wall of surfboard cutouts, some of which open to reveal Kanaka’s shack or Mrs. Forrest’s kitchen. Carly McNamee lights the stage with California sunshine and signals Chicket’s personality changes with Hitchcockian flashes of red. Costume/make-up designer Elise Ybarra’s outfits have just the right colorful ‘60s beach party look, though for whatever reason, only StarCat goes shirtless, not quite what you expect at a beach party Charles Busch style. Also, several of the cast members have clearly spent very little time in the sun, a smart move in 2011 but again not what you’d see on Malibu beach regulars. 21st Century tattoos also appear entirely out of place on ‘60s girls. On a more positive note, a selection of ‘60s songs give a sense of time and place, and movement from scene to scene is swift, precisely what Busch asks for in his production notes.

Psycho Beach Party at STAGEStheatre made me laugh. After all, it’s hard not to be funny with lines like “I bet she’s hot and spicy between the enchilada” and “Stick to the bathtub, baby. Leave the Pacific to the big boys.” It could be getting even more laughs (and getting them closer to Busch’s intentions) if it didn’t try so hard for them.

STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton.

–Steven Stanley
October 2, 2011
Photos: Image Work Photography

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