at the Organic Theater

There’s something genuinely sad about Gilligan’s Island: The Musical. Bad shows are a dime a dozen, but usually by opening night the authors know their work is bad, even if they don’t know how to make it better. Gilligan’s seems different. I think Sherwood Schwartz, the producer and coauthor of this vanity effort and the creator of the TV series it’s based on, believes himself when he says (to quote from the Tribune puff piece), “It’s a good story. It’s about peace.” And when he and his son Lloyd compare the show to Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables–“Except it’s funny,” Sherwood told a Sun-Times interviewer–I have no reason to doubt their sincerity, though they’re certainly self-deluded.

Gilligan’s Island: The Musical is a family affair–Schwartz pere et fils wrote the script, while the songs were penned by Sherwood’s daughter, Hope Juber, and her husband, Laurence. And I’m sure this family really care for each other and see this musical as the outgrowth of their mutual affection; certainly there’s no sign of the creative friction that might have resulted in something other than this lame, self-indulgent, good-natured but idiotic bore.

Sherwood Schwartz, who turned 76 the week this turkey had its world premiere at the Organic Theater, is a veteran radio and TV hack whose credits include not only Gilligan’s Island but The Brady Bunch. These do not exactly herald a visionary talent–or for that matter someone with much taste. Which isn’t to deny the two series their popularity. Gilligan’s only ran three seasons on CBS, between 1964 and 1967–inevitably it was a victim of its dead-end premise, about seven people marooned on a tropical island after their cruise boat sank–but it’s a perennial in reruns. The Brady Bunch lasted five seasons on ABC in the early 70s and is a similar syndication success. But network TV is a very different animal from the stage: it’s smaller and more intimate, more dependent on star personalities, and it’s free. Perhaps most important, on a TV sitcom inanity and tastelessness aren’t necessarily drawbacks; the cheesiness of Gilligan’s and Brady Bunch was part of their appeal.

The kids at the Annoyance Theatre knew that, of course, when they recycled old scripts into their long-running Real Live Brady Bunch: that show reveled in the sheer awfulness of its material. Gilligan’s Island: The Musical attempts exactly the opposite: it tries to make its familiar characters and themes contemporary and classy for a family musical-comedy crowd. Seeking to distance himself from Annoyance’s Brady Bunch show, Schwartz claims as his inspiration Annie, which he sees as similar to Gilligan’s Island in its escapist, multigenerational appeal.

Yeah, but Annie had something Gilligan’s Island doesn’t: a creative team that knew what the hell it was doing. Annie’s composer Charles Strouse and lyricist-director Martin Charnin may not be great artists, but they know the ropes from years of experience on Broadway.

For all the Schwartz family’s success on TV (and in pop music–Laurence Juber’s main claim to fame is playing guitar with Paul McCartney and Wings), its members are amateurs when it comes to the stage. And they make a fundamental amateurish mistake: Gilligan’s Island: The Musical tries to have it both ways by sticking to the original TV ingredients while turning away from them. The script ambles toward a full-length plot–stolen from tabloid theories about the Easter Island sculptures having been built by extraterrestrial visitors–but never really develops it, veering off too frequently into episodic, sitcom-style bits (Gilligan spraying everyone with glue, Gilligan falling into a mud pit and making Mary Ann think he’s a mummy). The songs are plentiful but usually intrusive–intended to amplify an idea that could have been tossed off in a one-liner or two instead of genuinely developing character. (The mediocre music doesn’t help; the only song with a bit of individuality is the one the Jubers didn’t write–the TV show’s familiar theme song, which might have worked as an audience sing-along but isn’t used that way.)

A similar ambivalence afflicts the handling of characters. Sometimes they’re clones of their TV originals: chunky Matthew Kimbrough as the Skipper looks a lot like and sounds almost exactly like Alan Hale Jr., and Steve Pudenz and Jane Bushway as Mr. and Mrs. Howell appear intent on imitating Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer as closely as possible. At other times the show tries to break new ground. Tina Louise as the sexy starlet Ginger was a model of Monroeesque daft innocence on TV; here, as played by the beautiful Cathryn Hartt (whose program bio discreetly mentions that her sister is Morgan Fairchild), Ginger is an unabashed slut, the subject of a string of vulgar jokes about tits, ass, and easy morals (would TV’s Gilligan ever have compared Ginger’s kiss to the action of a vacuum cleaner?). The know-it-all professor, nicely played by Sean Grennan, acquires a spark his video predecessor lacked, thanks to a patter song that’s a poor cousin to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Modern Major General” (“I’ve studied every culture / From ancient Greece to Thailand / Why can’t I get / Seven people off an island?”). But sweet and innocent Mary Ann (Rachel Jones) is here a farm girl straight out of a traveling salesman joke–when the plot necessitates ritual sacrifice of a virgin, everyone gives her the fish-eye.

Blair Bybee as Gilligan in many ways epitomizes the problems that sink this unseaworthy show. He’s a very talented singer and dancer, and choreographer Ronna Kaye gives him plenty of opportunities to strut his stuff. But when he caps off one song, the blithely simpleminded “Lucky Guy,” with a startling series of back flips, or soars in an impressive display of vocal range and breath control in another (the trio “Hieroglyphics”), he belies his character’s basic nature: unlike proto-Gilligan Bob Denver, whose inherently lazy persona fit the role like a glove, Bybee’s too buoyant, too energetic, too bright to be believable as the moron whose clumsiness ruins every attempt to escape the island.

Director Stephen Rothman has assembled a solid ensemble, including a five-person chorus who provide offstage vocals; a few Las Vegas-style dance numbers; and a feel-good finale featuring Kathi Ridley as an African American alien (offensively cast to bring a climactic gospel punch to the otherwise lily-white proceedings). Rothman’s also juiced up the action with an array of gimmicky effects, from an onstage missile and overhead flying saucer to paper flowers that fall on the audience’s heads. Yael Pardess designed the elaborate set, which includes a pretty picture-postcard painting of the island; Jordan Ross and Bridget Bartlett share credit for the costumes, which range from the fancifully flashy gear worn by the aliens to the Howells’ signature array of outfits for every occasion (yachting gear, safari gear, golfing gear, ballroom gear); and the Touchstone jazz band delivers the pop score with more punch than it merits.

Performers, sets, and costumes of this quality don’t come cheap. The folks behind Gilligan’s Island: The Musical know how to spend money. They also know how to make it: “Gilligan’s Island: The Marketing Strategy” includes selling T-shirts and sweatshirts in the lobby. What they don’t know is how to write a musical.