Review: ‘Beach Blanket Babylon’ (*****)

by Charles Kruger
Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

 

The fabulous Tammy Nelson sports the famous San Francisco Skyline Hat in the finale of Beach Blanket Babylon at Club Fugazi. Photo Credit: Beach Blanket Babylon.
The fabulous Tammy Nelson sports the famous San Francisco Skyline Hat in the finale of Beach Blanket Babylon at Club Fugazi. Photo Credit: Beach Blanket Babylon.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

I first visited San Francisco in the 1980s, and came here to live in the new century. But when New Year’s Day of 2016 rolled around, I still hadn’t seen “Beach Blanket Babylon.” How could this be?

I know Fisherman’s Wharf inside and out; I’ve sat around a bonfire on Ocean Beach; I’ve bicycled the Golden Gate Bridge, sat in the caves by candlelight for a poetry reading at Sutro Baths, sampled almost every type of ice cream available in the city, attended the Fourth of July performance of the San Francisco Mime Troup in Dolores Park, listened to poetry readings at City Lights Bookstore and Quiet Lightning, dressed up for opening night of the Opera season, laughed and cried at Christmas Carol at A.C.T., and gazed out the windows at the Top Of The Mark.

But “Beach Blanket Babylon?” Oh, PLEASE. I’m no rube of a tourist. Give me a break.

Mea Culpa.

It took a rave review in the New York Times to put a fire under my back side and get me to Club Fugazi for San Francisco’s favorite hat trick. I am NOT a rube; and I’ll be damned if I’ll be scooped by the New York Times when it comes to the San Francisco theatre scene.

So it was that on a recent rainy Saturday night, I headed more-or-less incognito to North Beach, mildly embarrassed, to see for myself what it is about Beach Blanket Babylon that has kept it running for decades.

And now I know: it’s LOVE. Yes, there are funny hats, goofy songs, and celebrity parodies. But the essence of this show is to welcome visitors to the City: everything about it says, “Welcome! Welcome! Welcome! We are so happy to have you — here is our City! Isn’t it grand! We love you! We love our town!” It overwhelms with absolute sincerity.

Sure, the company wants to make money. Why not? But mostly and genuinely: these folk want to make you laugh, and they want you to love San Francisco and have a good time.

Everything about Beach Blanket Babylon is welcoming. The box office and the bar run with admirable efficiency while processing thousands of admissions a week. The Club Fugazi setting is intimate but not crowded. Every seat is a gem. Unlike most nightclubs, it is surprisingly comfortable. Tables are amply spaced and large enough to sit at in comfort. There is no minimum drink purchase required, nor are the drinks overpriced.

The stage show is not profound (to say the least), but it sure is polished. This is clear from the opening number as soon as the San Francisco tourist Snow White (the gloriously piped Shawna Ferris McNulty) hits her first high C.

Although all of the musically polished performances are comic delights, what most impresses about BBB are the visual elements. Not just the famous hats, but every costume detail, set details, lights, and special effects are perfectly realized. Sitting in the front row, it was clear that absolutely nothing shabby was allowed: not a loose sequin, nor an unironed pleat, nor a single hanging thread could be detected. The hats are genuine works of art, clearly constructed with the best of materials. The special effects are up to the highest Broadway standards – watch for the flying Madonna! And Tammy Nelson’s eyes ought to be insured by Lloyd’s of London for the priceless comic gems they are. You’ll never see better mugging than this.

Beach Blanket Babylon has seen San Francisco through the most turbulent of times: from the halcyon days of The Cockettes and their Theatre of the Ridiculous to the tragedies of Jonestown and the assassinations of Milk and Moscone to the ravages of AIDS to the first Tech Boom and Bust to the transformation of the Marina District into the Village of the Damned Bros  — Steve Silver’s love note to the City has been trumpeting the survival of San Francisco values.

In a town of great characters and eccentrics, Steve Silver (who died of Aids in the mid ’90s) was one of the greatest: artist, showman, and philanthropist. His spirit lives fully at each performance of Beach Blanket Babylon.

Long may the Beach Blanket wave!

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