TAMPA — No one ever thought movies like Beach Blanket Bingo depicted real life, even in the 1960s. People aren't that happy. Their problems are messier than Frankie and Annette's.
Yet there is something oddly addictive about this world that never was. That is the hook within Psycho Beach Party, Stageworks Theatre's season opener. The play by Charles Busch caresses the stereotypes of that innocent time, even as it exposes the damage endured by those who didn't fit neatly prescribed categories. This production, directed by producing artistic director Karla Hartley, is a fun and self-assured conduit of Busch's message that also delivers a lot of laughs.
All of the early 1960s tropes you might remember — and many you did not — are there, packed with obsessive-compulsive zeal. Kanaka (William E. Masuck), a surfer dude with Bali Ha'i spirituality ("Being a surfer is like being a priest"), alone supplies dozens from his "morning java" on. Marvel Ann (Katrina Stevenson), the queen of mean, strikes poses on a beach blanket to snag the next "He-Man."
There's Yo-Yo (Franco Colon), the jacked-up "crazy" guy always off on some chick-finding adventure with buddy Provoloney (Landon Green). There's college dropout Star Cat (Ryan Bernier), who can't quite shrug off his father's disapproval. Most of these characters teeter on the sunset of adolescence and their early 1960s zeitgeist is about to die.
No one is more conflicted than Chicklet Forrest, who likes Star Cat, who is controlled by Marvel Ann. These things and, oh yeah, some mysterious murders, make up the outer edges of a plot. Chicklet seems like a natural suspect due to her apparent psychiatric problems, but it doesn't really matter. Everyone's angst over relationships consumes other details, including the possibility of a serial killer on the loose.
Even Chicklet's multiple personality disorder is a gimmick, one that shakes up the social order and drives the play's comedy. The first of her many alters, announced by a playful snapping sound effect, is the dominatrix Ann Bowman, with whom Kanaka is suddenly smitten. Many more personalities emerge — a black checkout girl, a cocky male model, a Southern belle — each serving a different function.
All of that might seem silly, but all the other characters turn out to be hiding key aspects of their personalities as well. A lot of chaos ends in relief. The nerdy Berdine (Summer Bohnenkamp) finds purpose in worshipping a B-movie star, Bettina Barnes, who finds a servant. Yo-Yo and Provoloney become lovers and decide it's okay. And Star Cat reignites his passion to study psychiatry by curing Chicklet.
All of that plays out on a set designed by Frank Chavez and charmingly painted by Rebekah Lazaridis. Standout performances include Zachary Hines as Chicklet, Matthew McGee as her controlling mother and Ricky Cona as Bettina. The fact that all three actors are male gives them an extra comical dimension (especially McGee, a master of drag), but is otherwise incidental.
The jokes landed more often than not, something that doesn't always happen in comedies. Sometimes the surprise was the avalanche of dated cliches. Each time you think it's over, that they will tone it down for awhile.
Instead it gets even sillier, and you laugh.
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.