Charting the career of Ray Davies and the Kinks at their peak, “Sunny Afternoon” is a jukebox musical in the mold of Buddy Holly bio-tuner “Buddy.” Trouble is, no one dies at the end. And the odd disagreement aside — notably with America’s entertainment trade unions — success comes relatively easily for the tyro North London rockers. The band’s back catalogue offers ballads and belters alike, but you can feel Joe Penhall’s book straining for drama. The Kinks have everything a jukebox musical needs — except a really great story.
In fairness, history hasn’t given Penhall (“Blue/Orange”) a huge amount to work with, other than class upheaval and money squabbles. Four “working class oiks” first seen overturning a debutante ball, the Kinks find four managers — including a plummy pair of dandies — each taking a sizeable cut. By the time they reach America, every trucker and tour manager in the land wants paying, leaving the Kinks the first band banned from the US. (That plot twist seemingly makes Broadway an unlikely path for this musical; there are a lot of Union Jacks waved.)
Internal squabbles persist — bickering being what bands do best — with lead guitarist and professional rapscallion Dave Davies (Ray’s younger brother, played by George Maguire) a constant aggravation. One minute he’s swinging from a chandelier in a sequinned ballgown, the next he’s getting smashed in the face with a foot pedal by drummer Mick Avory (Adam Sopp). It’s all building to bassist Pete Quaife (Ned Derrington), the quiet one, quitting the group — and yet, three songs later, he’s back in the fold.
Throughout, you get the sense that the red pen of frontman Ray (John Dagleish) always hovers nearby. His relationship with grounded Bradford lass Rasa (Lillie Flynn) — no groupies for Davies Senior, thanks very much — blots out their divorce; his depression sidesteps a suicide attempt. Much of “Sunny Afternoon” looks like a case to prove the frontman’s genius. “He thinks in song,” says Dave, and even his gap teeth are celebrated.
To be fair, as the songs continue, the argument becomes increasingly convincing. The Kinks’ records are fantastically showcased, and Penhall’s book is seamlessly smooth and sprinkled with wit. Each number finds its moment, with the biggest hits evenly spaced. “Sunny Afternoon” celebrates that euphoric summer of ’66 with a ticker tape drop to mark England’s World Cup win. “Days” becomes a gorgeous a capella nostalgia trip, and “Waterloo Sunset” is artfully deconstructed to reveal its workings as the band re-find their rhythm. Five or six songs with guttural guitar riffs rip through the theater to thrilling effect.
What keeps Edward Hall’s production, first seen at the Hampstead in May, above a bog-standard tribute is the dazzling, deranged magnetism of his Davies brothers. Dagleish’s Ray has a faraway gaze and a gangly sex appeal; Maguire achieves the brash swagger of a charismatic wastrel. Together they’re electric, and real crowdpleasers both. Miriam Buether’s design, encasing the band in a recording studio lined with a panoply of speakers, smartly instills the swing of Sixties London without resorting to hackneyed iconography.
Running a bit more than two and a half hours, “Sunny Afternoon” grows gloopy toward the end with melancholic numbers piling up before the band unleashes a charged encore medley. But the production has already extended by four months, and it figures: “Sunny Afternoon” is totally enjoyable. It’s just never essential.