There’s an especially perplexing moment in “Good Vibrations” when, after a cross-country road trip to California via four retro kitchen chairs that stand in for the car, the “Little Deuce Coupe” itself materializes for no good reason at journey’s end and then vanishes again swiftly, though the song was jettisoned in previews. It’s as if the creatives said, “What the hell, we spent the money on the convertible, let’s throw it out there.” That chaotic sense of haphazard, try-anything desperation pervades most aspects of this amateurish attempt to stitch the Beach Boys’ hits into a musical.
Thanks to the enduring buoyancy of the songs and to a vocally capable, youthful cast that is attractive, energetic and bares a lot of skin, this isn’t quite the history-making train wreck trumpeted in advance by the bad vibrations emanating from its troubled previews. Even within the frame of jukebox tuners, it doesn’t approach the staggering tedium of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David songbook show “The Look of Love,” which dispensed with its book during development and opted for a pedestrian revue format. But that comparison is by no means a recommendation.
Tossing out the book might have been the best thing that could have happened to “Good Vibrations.” Librettist — a job description entirely unmerited here — Richard Dresser’s clumsy, half-baked stab at a storyline throws together the coolest boy in high school with the nerdy brainiac who’s had a crush on him since fourth grade. Since she has a hot car and the guy and his buddies need to get to California, boy uses girl, she wises up and cold-shoulders him just as his desire for her suddenly stirs, then he spends the rest of the show trying to win her back.
Throw in a briefly separated mixed-race couple and a closeted gay boy hanging with the dudes while hankering for the surfer hunks — not that either of these scenarios create any conflict, God forbid — and you have “Good Vibrations,” a musical so inane it makes its obvious model, “Mamma Mia!,” look like “Sunday in the Park With George.” This is not just cheesy, it’s Velveeta cheesy, spread thick on white bread.
Graduating to director-choreographer for the first time after handling terp duties on such Broadway tuners as “Into the Woods,” “Urinetown” and the regrettable “Dance of the Vampires,” John Carrafa seems to have allowed a kind of anarchy that carries through the musical’s structure, performance and design elements. The lack of polish is evident from the first messy, overpopulated number, “Fun, Fun, Fun” — predictably awash with swim and wave moves — as a bunch of East Coast graduating high school students dream of California, where the girls are beautiful and it’s always summertime.
It would have made sense to set the show in the ’60s, when the idea of California as a golden destination and an almost mythical land of pleasure became implanted in popular culture. Instead, Dresser has declined to make “Good Vibrations” time-specific. The look of the show liberally mixes ’50s and ’60s iconography — diners, drive-ins, pulp-fiction covers, Andy Warhol — with contemporary costumes, hair and attitudes to bland effect.
In the arbitrary leading roles, David Larsen is a little low on charisma as Bobby; Kate Reinders displays far more charm and confidence as Caroline but does herself no favors by relentlessly channeling Kristin Chenoweth.
Given the yawning absence of character development in the book, the actors are not just beached but entirely at sea trying to stamp an identity on their roles: One minute Bobby is a devil-may-care dude with nothing but scorn for twittering Caroline, then without warning he’s a lovesick fool; similarly, Caroline is transformed instantly from dweeby valedictorian to popular lifesaver chick.
But despite occasional evidence of straining to re-create the studio-enhanced smoothness of the Beach Boys’ incomparable harmonies, the large cast acquits itself well enough on the songs. There’s an infectious, toe-tapping vibrancy in numbers like “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “I Get Around,” “California Girls” and “Surf City” that won’t be denied, no matter how imbecilic the context. Likewise, the warm melodies of more complex, introspective songs like “In My Room,” “Your Imagination” and “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.” The stirring “Sail on Sailor” even withstands an “American Idol”-style blasting from Tituss Burgess and David Reiser.
However, the songs are strung together with witless dialogue that summons only the faintest occasional hint of self-irony. It takes a knock to the head from one of the beach balls lobbed into the audience during the show’s built-in “Mamma Mia!”-emulating encore to muster full attention. (It will be interesting to see what comes first: an early closing notice or legal action over broken glasses.)
There’s a brash shamelessness that becomes quite disarming in the earlier prototype hit when Abba songs are ushered in with purpose-made dialogue. Here, the song selections too often seem awkwardly random.
The lack of any unifying shape in Carrafa’s busy but undemanding choreography is echoed in Heidi Ettinger’s sets. Indeed, the first and second acts appear to be entirely different shows, opening with the band onstage and a jumble of beachcomber paraphernalia strewn about a cluttered space representing who knows what, and then shifting upon arrival in California to a backdrop of coastal projections and a giant stylized wave that makes for some surreal entrances during nonbeach scenes.
The curtain-call medley boasts a neat trick, with several members of the cast riding elevated surfboards. Not that it could have saved this wipeout, but why the effect wasn’t employed to enliven an earlier number is just one of this misbegotten show’s many mystifying creative decisions.