By Richard Ades
I didn’t make it to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district until several years after the 1967 “Summer of Love.” By then, most of the flower children seemed to have disappeared.
What I found, instead, was dog poop. Mounds and mounds of dog poop, effectively turning the sidewalks into obstacle courses. It seemed that curbing your dog, much less picking up after it, was a foreign concept in this former capital of the counter-culture.
As a result of my tardy arrival at the Haight, I reacted to Shadowbox Live’s Underland much like I reacted to its earlier original musical, the Woodstock-based Back to the Garden. In each case, I was left with a feeling of wistful nostalgia—wistful because I hadn’t experienced either Woodstock or the Summer of Love. I only wished I had.
Written by Shadowbox’s Jimmy Mak, both musicals attempt to re-create a bygone era with the aid of a sketchy plot and memorable musical hits of the day. Both accomplish the task, but Back to the Garden did it a bit more successfully: The story was more compelling, and many of the rock songs were sung by facsimiles of the original performers, raising the fun quotient.
But Underland, directed by the always-inventive Stev Guyer, is impressive in its own right. It’s impossible not to enjoy a show that starts with If You’re Going to San Francisco, ends with A Whiter Shade of Pale and includes more than a dozen other classics in between. Music director Matt Hahn captures their original sound and spirit so effectively that suspicious patrons may think the performers are simply lip-synching to the originals. (They’re not, of course.)
Tying it all together is a plot that’s a mixture of Alice in Wonderland-inspired fantasy and wartime reality.
Albert (Robbie Nance), a vet who served as a sniper in Vietnam, arrives in the Haight in search of his missing daughter. His quest brings him into contact with local eccentrics such as Father William (JT Walker III), who doles out drugs along with spiritual guidance. More disturbingly, Albert encounters mystical characters seen only by him: the supportive Mouse (Edelyn Parker), the hyper-critical Cat (Amy Lay) and the gung-ho warrior Greenie (Tom Cardinal).
As Albert, a sincere Nance fulfills his main purpose, which is to anchor this return to a time and place that helped to define a decade. Still, his part is rather thinly written. More interesting than Albert’s search are the sights and sounds he encounters along the way.
The sights include the Diggers, a group of thespians who supplied the real-life Haight with both political satire and food. In Underland, they force Albert to take part in a skit involving a giant head representing LBJ.
But the sounds, in the form of ’60s rock hits, are the real backbone of Underland’s appeal. Oddly, the most fun of all is the laid-back Mellow Yellow, thanks to inspired performances by Brandon Anderson as an animated shopkeeper and Leah Haviland as his downer-addicted wife.
Among the most beautiful numbers is Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence, sung by Walker’s Father William and a series of strangers who wander by. Others include How Can I Be Sure, sung by Nikki Fagin with a rich voice that may remind you of Karen Carpenter.
Purists may complain about the way some classics are used. The Who’s I Can See for Miles, for example, is about an unfaithful lover, not about a struggle for battlefield survival. That said, Underland’s version, sung by Cardinal and accompanied by video images of wartime violence, does achieve a kind of surreal power.
A more serious complaint is that a couple of songs are cut off in the prime of life. It’s especially annoying that Respect ends just as vocalist Katy Psenicka and the band really start cookin’.
All will likely be forgiven by the time Julie Klein wraps up the show with a gorgeous rendition of Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, but still. After waiting 46 years for Shadowbox’s take on the Summer of Love, we can certainly wait a few minutes more for it to come to an end.
Underland continues through May 19 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $30, $20 for students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.