John Flansburgh in People Are Wrong!(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
John Flansburgh in People Are Wrong!
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
If you were a back-in-the-day person and I were to mention a musical involving power-to-the-people and flower power, spiritual gurus and cascading tresses, return-to-the-land movements and down-home-dressed actors wandering around the stage as if part of a commune rather than a cast, you'd immediately think of 1967's Hair at the Public. But, to quote Jerry Herman, it's today, and the new musical containing all these pliable elements is a joint Vineyard and Target Margin production called People are Wrong! -- which, for what it offers in terms of innovative entertainment value, might just as well have been written in 1967.

The story, set in the Catskills at the present and aspiring huffing-and-puffingly to satire, concerns Russ (John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants) and longtime girlfriend Terri (Erin Hill), who move to the country where they "can't hear your car alarms from our renovated barn." Repeating that sentiment in song enough times for it to sink in, they also discuss an impending wedding and the need to spruce up their acreage before any ceremony takes place. So they consult the local Agway garden folks (played by Todd Almond, Connie Petruk, Tricia Scotti, and the show's co-author Robin Goldwasser as Joyce) about their requirements and look for additional expert guidance from the show's narrator, Chainsaw Dick (Chris Anderson).

The advice that Russ and Terri get from these folks is to put themselves in the hands of a pony-tailed local called Xanthus (David Driver). But wait! Xanthus, stomping hither and thither in appliquéd bell-bottom trousers, also heads his own cult and is convinced that he's an alien popped onto this landscape from a sixth dimension somewhere. He's intent on using Russ and Terri's expansive lawn as a launching pad for his return. Soon, Joyce starts to worry about Xanthus's self-involvement and eventually spills the beans on his actual origin, which has little to do with space travel and lots to do with illegal pharmaceuticals and Chainsaw Dick.

With the fable that they've conjured, co-lyricists/librettists/composers Robin Goldwasser and Julia Greenberg aim to poke holes in, and fun at, many things. There's the let's-move-to-the-country trend among the young and rich, which leads to skyrocketing property values and the cavalier uprooting of locals and forests. Then there's the hold that gurus have over supposedly intelligent folks. Greenberg and Goldwasser are also undoubtedly suggesting that there's foolishness in stories where allegory is effortfully dragged in. Why else would they carpenter a song called "Jesus Christ, Xanthus Fucked Us," which so clumsily links the names Jesus Christ and Xanthus? But it's possible to get the joke and not find it funny, which is the case here. It's unfunny for reasons beginning with the muddled story, which isn't substantive in the first place, takes a long time to tell, and doesn't always follow its own inner logic.

Many of the show's songs are no more than songlets. Greenberg and Goldwasser occasionally offer up a snatch of pretty melody, as in "Makeout Moon" and "Go It Alone Song." When they do, however, they don't take it very far. Often, their nearly sung-through rock score is derivative; hearing these ditties, show-savvy patrons will be jolted into reprising superior originals in their heads. When Xanthus natters on about his pony tail, the irresistible title song from Hair springs to mind; when "Dear Old Plants" surfaces, it proves to have nothing on "Hurry! It's Lovely Up Here" from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. As for rhyming? Fuhgeddaboudit. Greenberg and Goldwasser are from the "rhyme when it's convenient" school and are satisfied with having produced couplets like "My brains are hanging upside down / I've really gotta turn this thing around." The on-stage band -- co-musical directors Jeremy Chatzky and Joe McGinty plus Dan Miller, Jon Spurney, and Clem Waldmann -- does as well as can be expected.

Robin Goldwasser, Tricia Scotti, Chris Anderson,Connie Petruk, and Todd Almond in People Are Wrong!(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Robin Goldwasser, Tricia Scotti, Chris Anderson,
Connie Petruk, and Todd Almond in People Are Wrong!
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
The cast isn't helpful, since it's of the singers-who-move variety. These players seem to be under the impression that to be noticeably proficient at what they're about would impart a slick, artificial look to the proceedings -- which, heaven forbid, might give the unwanted impression they're in a conventional show. Encouraged by director David Herskovits, who repeatedly sends out stagehands to deliver abundant props, the performers mug rather than act. Choreographed by Jody Ripplinger, they shuffle rather than dance. And they all appear to be very pleased with themselves, an unwise attitude to affect. The major transgressors are Goldwasser as the pious Joyce and Driver as the strutting Xanthus. Flansburgh -- Goldwasser's husband, here making his Off-Broadway debut -- doesn't bring any noticeable verve to the role of the befuddled Russ, though Hill as the agitated Terri looks to be trying a bit harder. Surprisingly, few in the ensemble sing very well, and this includes Flansburgh. Working on G. W. Mercier's cutesy set and in Mattie Ullrich's affected country-cred wardrobe, they might be giants, but I don't think so.

This is a week in which large numbers of people are convinced that large numbers of other people are wrong. Julia Greenberg and Robin Goldwasser have correctly pinpointed that notion. Otherwise, their brains are hanging upside down and they haven't turned their thing around.