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Check Your Irony at the Door

In San Francisco, I know of two totems of kitsch whose power is so great, it renders any attempt at ironic detachment or sarcasm moot. One is the Tonga Room in the Fairmont Hotel — once you see the lightning and rain shower while a mediocre band warbles 80s-era classics, you have no choice but to succumb.

The other is Beach Blanket Babylon, which I saw last week as part of a blogger press corps event. (Which means that, yes, I got to see it free).

Beach Blanket Babylon is a comic musical revue that has been running in North Beach for the last 30 years. The show’s material is continually updated with the times (so we get Dick Cheney shooting people in the face, Brokeback Mountain, and the like).

Most people I know have very little knowledge of the show, and if they do know anything about it, it’s the totally overdone headdresses that performers wear as part of various costumes. Frankly, those headdresses are pretty much worth the price of admission, especially the San Francisco Skyline, which has been updated to include the new de Young.

By it’s nature, the show is a mixed bag. Gag after gag is thrown at the audience. Some of it works, some doesn’t. You have to applaud the show’s producers for their their willingness to create rather involved 5-15 second gags that have nothing to do with anything. It’s almost like a game of word association at times–someone remarks about how they want to find a younger man, the curtain goes up, we see “Demi Moore”, and then “Ashton Kutcher” comes riding out on a tricycle, does a loop of the stage, returns to Demi, the curtain closes, and we move on. It’s remarkably appropriate to the short-attention-span culture we live in, and must be quite costly to put on!

My favorite of these associations was when a performer says “darkness,” the curtain opens up, and we see a PG&E worker, who begins to sing “Hello darkness my old friend…” as a blackout occurs. I only wish BBB had more Bay Area humor. When I last saw it (10 years ago) I remember a fairly involved bit with Da Mayor at the time, Willie Brown. Sadly, Gavin Newsom doesn’t warrant a caricature, though he does get namechecked in a song referencing gay marriage.

Speaking of politics, what doesn’t work is the increasingly dated political humor. Too much time is spent making fun of Theresa Heinz Kerry, which can only be explained by the show’s producers wanting to get as much mileage as possible out of the ketchup bottle that she’s in. Unfortunately, the set piece around that gag feels, well, lame.

It’s also disappointing that they use no music made since, oh, 2000, and the bulk of the tunes are hoary chestnuts from the 60s. Perhaps that appeals to the decidedly boomer crowd that was in attendance (if you removed the blogger press corps from the audience, the average age was probably about 50), but it gives the production a tired feeling. I would think that contemporary pop songs like “Hey Ya” would fit perfectly and provide some freshness.

The fundamental question is, is it worth the price of admission? Well, you do get a *lot* of material, and quite a number of laughs, and even a few wide-eyed open-mouthed stares at the amazing hats, so it’s definitely worth something. Personally, I’d say something in the $45 area (and you can pay up to nearly $80 for some seats some nights). It’s could definitely be part of a fun evening out in North Beach, a perfectly good date, or perhaps something to do with friends in from out of town. You’ll definitely walk out feeling good, and probably humming to yourself the song with which they close…

San Francisco, open your golden gate
You let no stranger wait outside your door.
San Francisco, here is your wandering one
Saying I’ll wander no more.
Other places only make me love you best,
Tell me you’re the heart of all the golden west.
San Francisco, welcome me home again;
I’m coming home to go roaming no more.