Monday, June 20, 2016

"Beach Blanket Babylon"

Beach Blanket Babylon
Steve Silver, Creator
Jo Shuman Silver, Producer

Shawna Ferris McNulty as Snow White
First, I must make a confession.  For over thirty-five years of its forty-two-and-counting-year history, I have been a Beach Blanket Babylon fanatic – some might say groupie.  I can count at least twenty-five times I have toured the world with Snow White in search of her Prince Charming, and in fact I have bought out half-to-the-entire venue on several occasions, including for one son’s bar mitzvah weekend.  I have even performed with the full cast for two nights in Davies Symphony Hall (along with over 250 of my brothers of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus).  So, I am clearly not an altogether unbiased reviewer, but this is the first time I have actually reviewed the production that has to-date been seen by nearly six million people worldwide.

And speaking of bar mitzvahs, one of my fondest BBB memories is attending the bar mitzvah performance on Beach Blanket Babylon’s thirteenth birthday.  That show was packed with kitschy Jewish humor and references – an element of every show since has included.  (The current version includes dancing rabbis with humorously labeled bottles of kosher wine on their bouncing, black hats.)  The celebratory performance was followed by a chopped-liver-and-rugelach-rich celebration with the then-living Steve Silver’s family greeting us all as if we were long-time friends.

Through all these years, much has stayed the same even though the show is in constant flux.  At least weekly, updates of book, songs, and characters keep up with the latest headline celebrity happenings, blunders, and gossip.  For over four decades, an ageless Snow White has searched cities around the world for her perfect beau, aided by a saucy, snappy Fairy Godmother (Glinda the Good Witch) who calls her everything but Snow White (Snow Show, Snow Plow, Snow Ball, etc.)   Along the way, she meets both iconic figures that tend not to change year-to-year (Mr. Peanut, Louis XIV, Oprah, Tina Turner, Carmen Miranda, among others) and current political and pop culture characters from the local, state, and national scene. 

Consistent through all the years has been the highest quality singing of bitingly satiric, outrageously funny, but still G-rated versions of popular tunes from rock and Broadway.  And the most famous feature of all is the ridiculously tall head dresses that can often be taller than the performers themselves and can be packed with anything from over-sized grocery items, to books, trees, and animals.  And did I mention the costumes that defy description.  Needless to say, all dress is wild and wooly, strange and silly, over-sized and over-done – each costume bringing the house down in laughter before a word or note is sounded.  All in all, no matter how many times one sees Beach Blanket Babylon, the siren call of Snow’s high, shrilly voice always beckons a return visit to see who the current group of known names being grilled is going to be.

Auditions to be Snow White surely must include mimicking that famed, high-pitched voice from Disney’s original movie; and of course the current Snow, Shawna Ferris McNulty, takes that pitch and raises it another octave in her squeals, shrieks, and singing.  Appearing first in the traditional outfits straight off the animated movie screen, Snow White titters, whines, stumbles, and taps her way around the world with expressions of appropriate naiveté, surprise, envy, and wonder as she meets well over seventy-five different, crazy characters while she looks for her perfect prince.

Reneé Lubin as Glinda
She is set on her journey by a fairy godmother all in pink who has been on the BBB stage for over twenty-six years, Reneé Lubin, and who greets the red-slippered, yellow-skirted Snow with, “Girlfriend, I’m truly scared of you!”  The real magic of this fairy is how many different famous personas she will become throughout the evening.  With a head brimming with books, she is Oprah; with a Hershey’s Bar and a cologne bottle, Coco Chanel; with snake-like hair locks shooting in all directions from her head, Whoopi; and with a multi-foot column of swishing hair that resembles a giant duster, Tina Turner.  But when in all blue glitters and bangles from hair to toe, she is true diva as she sings “Ain’t Misbehaving” after arriving on stage our of a lion’s mouth.  A voice that pierces the air in trumpeted clarity, a personality that
reaches into the audience and touches each person individually, and a compact body that dances in moves full of fun and charm – Reneé has been and continues to be a star to see and see again.

Tammy Nelson as a Jewish Mother
But wait.  Here comes another twenty-year veteran, Tammy Nelson, with a giant pizza on her head, four dancing chefs in tall white hats, and a voice to bring down the walls of Jericho as she belts, “Be Italian.”  As a comedian, there is no match, meeting Snow as a chain-smoking, cross-eyed, lip-quivering woman walking the trashy Montmartre to lure Snow into the seedier life of Paris.  Whether a bejeweled Jewish mama in an “Oy Vey” apron with her huge shopping cart full of kosher goodies, a tragic Adele making yet another phone call (“Hello Again”), or a cowgirl from the wild west singing a rambunctious “I Am Woman” with Reneé, Tammy proves why she is and has been a crowd-pleaser for so long.

Curt Branom as King Louis
When asked about his happiest-ever moment in the show, Curt Branom recalls the night he got to be on stage with Carol Channing (which happened to be the last night founder Steve Silver saw the show before succumbing to AIDS).  He too is a long-timer and a true icon for anyone like me who has seen the show multiple times through the decades.  Currently, Curt is chest-bearing President Putin, who wears a box of Ritz Crackers for, what else, a “Puttin’ on the Ritz” tap dance.  He is also the uptight, self-righteous Michele Bachman, declaring, “I’ll make you straight if you are gay” and a wild-haired, wild-eyed Bernie Sanders.  But the part that has been Curt’s reign seemingly forever is as the high-heeled, high-voiced Louis XIV whose staccato, multi-octave laugh is brand-able and who thwarts Snow’s advances by gaily and flamboyantly proclaiming, “I’ll be a twosome, thanks to Gavin Newsome.”

Catlin McGinty as Barbra Streisand
This cast is so deep and so talented.  Jacqui Arslan is not only gun-toting Sarah Palin but also Demo-leader Nancy Pelosi and a number of contemporary fifteen-minute-in-fame stars.  Caitlin McGinty brings her own crossed eyes as wells as foot-long finger nails to sing a dramatic, self-obssessed “People” as Barbra Streisand (“People, who needs people, ‘cause I’m the most wonderful person in the world”).   Derek Lux is a stimulus-package-offering Bill Clinton toting his oversized Viagra as well as the magazine cover beauty, Caitlin Jenner.  Albert Hodge is President Obama, a non-PC witch doctor, and a fabulous James Brown who joins Reneé in a show-stopping “I’ll Be There.”  And of course, Trump had to make an appearance; Scott Reardon insures the egomaniac is as stupid and crazy on stage as he is in real life.

A visit to Paris, France in the Fugazi Club would never be complete without dancing, sexy poodles.  Kirk Mills leads the pack with his pink bows and excellent dancing.  He returns in a number of roles, including Ted Cruz singing, “Born near the USA;” but his climatic role comes as the never-say-die Elvis, who finally becomes the “wise-men-say” Prince Charming that Snow White (now converted into cone-nippled Madonna) has been long searching.

And this cast is backed with the best of rock bands that just go and go and go in full exuberance.  Steve Salgo is only one of several excellent and entertaining members in their dark sunglasses, and he happens to be in his thirtieth year on trumpet and flugelhorn.  Bill Keck is conductor and music director of this star-studded cast; and Kenny Mazlow somehow conceives how to get so many different characters on and off stage and how to choreograph their many dance routines – all without the slightest hitch.  While Steve Silver designed all the original costumes, scenes, props, and skyscraper hats, Matthew James (props, hats), Timothy Santry (wigs), and Monique Motil (costumes) carry on and admirably expand his brilliance.

So, how can all these guys and gals keep doing this night after night, seven times a week, year in and year out?  Reneé Lubin says, “Each night is as different as the audience ... The cast is just as excited to entertain a ‘jazzed’ audience as they are to be entertained.”  And Curt Branom adds, “What I really love is our audiences (who are) so much fun and an integral part of our show.”

All to say, whether you are one of the few who has never accompanied Snow White in her hunt for a hunk or if you have been round the world with her dozens of times, now is the time to get that ticket and head back to Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon.  I am here to attest the show, the cast, and the band are as good or better than ever and, together, are an only-in-San-Francisco visit to be made by every native and tourist alike.

Rating: 5 E

Beach Blanket Babylon continues forever (hopefully), Wednesdays through Sundays (with two show on Saturdays and Sundays) at the Club Fugazi, 678 Beach Blanket Babylon Blvd., San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 415-421-4222.

Photos by Rick Markovich

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