Beach Blanket Babylon Is Not Overrated, Not Even For Locals
Every San Franciscan has a list of local activities they haven't done that the average visitor to this city probably has. One of those, for us, was Beach Blanket Babylon, the North Beach musical revue famous for its huge hats and culture-skewering whimsy. The show comes recommended by seemingly every travel guide, as well as local newspaper critics. But Beach Blanket Babylon is one of those things, like going to Alcatraz or eating a bowl of clam chowder in a bread bowl, that a self-respecting San Franciscan probably wouldn't be inclined to do on their own. Which, as we found out Saturday, is a big mistake -- especially for fans of pop music.
Beach Blanket Babylon's Tammy Nelson as Adele. Photo by Rick Markovich for BBB.
To be sure, many of the people waiting in line for the 9:30 p.m. show were tourists -- if only from just across the Bay. And the slickness of the operations at Club Fugazi, where the show goes down five nights a week, has the feel of a well-run amusement park attraction: Servers in bow ties shuffle you to your small wooden chair and leave a program and a menu of overpriced drink options on a small table in front of you. There's the slight musk of a tourist trap.
But that feeling disappears when the lights go down and the show's tireless parade of clever puns begins. The story follows Snow White on her search for love across the world and the pop culture universe. Along the way we encounter hilariously rendered versions of seemingly every major figure in the pop canon: Prince, Elvis, James Brown, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Michael Jackson, Adele, Tina Turner, even Nicki Minaj. Most of them were devastatingly funny, especially a mid-show ode to Thriller that got the slack expressions of the video's dancers just right. The show climaxes with an airborne (sort of) ode to a pop megastar that we won't spoil, except to say that Jean-Paul Gaultier would be proud. And every single one of the singers was pretty much incredible -- especially Renee Lubin, who played a list of characters including Tina Turner and Michelle Obama.
The Beach Blanket Babylon script must get rewritten constantly, because there were lines in Saturday's production referencing events (horses and bayonets!) that only took place a week ago. And they were funny. Not tepid, and not stand-up comedy-level risque, but somewhere in between. In fact there were few moments during the 90-minute show when most of the audience wasn't laughing, and those were probably inserted to give people a break. So yeah: Beach Blanket Babylon might seem like one of those S.F. activities only tourists will enjoy. It's definitely not.