KPBS AIRDATE: June 8, 1994
The SS Minnow, destined to be shipwrecked on Gilligan’s Island, was launched in San Diego. Did you know that? Well, okay, the musical version of the SS Minnow. The Theatre in Old Town is floating the West coast premiere of “Gilligan’s Island: The Musical,” a newly revised edition of an earlier workshop production that is off-Broadway-bound.
Surely you know about Gilligan’s Island: The Television Sitcom. It’s a cult TV classic, a flimsy series that only ran for two seasons beginning 1964 and has become the most frequently rerun show in syndication history. Why? Who knows. Sherwood Schwartz, the original writer, who also penned the new musical, says it’s because “we all harbor the optimistic hope that people of all kinds can somehow learn to get along: rich people, poor people, glamorous people, plain people, intellectual people, simple people, strong people, weak people: people who would never even meet under ordinary circumstances.”
Schwartz embodies all those different people in seven dippy but enduring castaways: Gilligan, the Skipper, too, the Millionaire and his wife, the Movie Star, the Professor… and Mary Ann. Yeah, you remember it all from the series song, which has lived in the hearts and minds of millions — for thirty incredible years. Don’t worry, Gilligan aficionados: that old familiar ditty features prominently in the new musical. But there are 18 other numbers, composed by Laurence Juber, former lead guitarist for Paul McCartney and Wings, and also, parenthetically, son-in-law of Sherwood Schwartz. The lyrics were written by his wife, Hope, daughter of the Schwartz dynasty, with uncle Lloyd collaborating with Sherwood on book.
The music is pleasant, sweet, derivative but hummable; the lyrics are much less inspired. There’s a variety of styles — from country to calypso, each song highlighting the personality of those characters you’ve come to know and love. The story-line is the weakest link — something about an alien visit to the island foretold in hieroglyphics. There’s a cute song by that name, by the way, that would teach anyone — even Gilligan — to spell the cryptographic word.
If the original “Gilligan” was fluff-stuff, then you can think of this new rendition as bubble gum with whipped cream. It’s cloyingly sweet at times, ridiculous but somehow irresistible.
The cast is first-rate: talented, high energy, not total clones of the originals but looking frighteningly similar. Their songs match them perfectly, especially the Howells’ supercilious “It’s Good to be Rich” and “The Professor’s Lament,” which poses the musical question that has haunted viewers for decades: “I have a Ph.D. from MIT… 2 M.D.s with specialties… why can’t I can’t get seven people off an island?”
The production’s tech work is very elaborate for Old Town, with special sound and lighting effects, lots of foliage, and even real sand and water. Everything is done in earnest, but thankfully, nothing is taken too too seriously.
Director Paula Kalustian and choreographers Jill and Steve Anthony have gone all out; there’s so much movement surrounding you, you feel like you’re aboard the SS Minnow. The men dance better than the women, but who’s counting? Everyone sings well, even if what they’re singing won’t stay in your mind past the final note.
But it all works amazingly well — for what it is, with what you expect, for where it’ll go from here — and all those other disclaimers. Personally, I’m not a sitcom fan. I don’t like slapstick or silly. And mindless musicals aren’t my thing. Truly, I had to swallow hard during the finale, a soppy, corny thing that says “if we can live together so can anyone.” But that’s me. If you’re a Gilligan devotée, if you’ve got disposable income, a night off from the tube, and you want to solve that eternal preferential debate over Ginger versus Mary Ann, have I got a show for you.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.