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Theater review: 'Summer of Love' by Musical Theatre West

April 8, 2011 |  7:08 am

Summer A psychedelically painted van rolls to a stop, its doors fly open and out pour flower children with long hair. Er, long, really fake wigs.

The young people -- clean-scrubbed despite faux soil marks on their bell bottoms and peasant dresses -- spill into an urban cavern illuminated by glowing, neon-like tubes. Rock-concert-style lighting turns the air liquid and acid-trippy.

This is the "Summer of Love," the title announces, but something feels wrong. The newest show from jukebox-musical-maker Roger Bean wants to run barefoot back to the youth revolution of 1967. But what's onstage in this Musical Theatre West world premiere is slickly packaged and fake as can be -- qualities entirely at odds with that movement.

As characters and plot points are introduced, further realizations set in: "Hey, I've seen this before -- in 'Hair'!" Except for the runaway bride. "What, now it's 'The Graduate'?"

Associated topics appear to have made creator-director Bean, known for "The Marvelous Wonderettes," nervous. A multi-song drug sequence is prefaced by what feels like a tacked-on anti-drug aphorism from the group's earth mother.

Among the nearly two dozen songs are "Grazing in the Grass," "White Rabbit," "Spinning Wheel," "Crystal Blue Persuasion" and "War." The selections are evocative, although sticklers will note that few of the tunes existed yet in 1967.

Of the dozen singers, several are terrific (Christine Horn, Frank Lawson, Michael J. Willett); the orchestrations by Michael Borth, played by a nine-piece band, are atmospheric; and projections by Lianne Arnold (some historical, some hallucinatory) are entrancing.

Still, it's a shame that this era, with so much to say to our own, is invoked with so little genuineness.

-- Daryl H. Miller

"Summer of Love,"Carpenter Performing Arts Center, Cal State Long Beach, 6200 E. Atherton St. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; also 7 p.m. this Sunday. Ends April 17. $30-$80. (562) 856-1999, Ext. 4, or www.musical.org. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Photo: Flower children gather in 1967 San Francisco in Musical Theatre West's world premiere presentation of "Summer of Love," with Eric Anderson in front as the foremost free spirit known as River. Credit: Alysa Brennan / Musical Theatre West.

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