Review: Good Vibrations: A Punk Rock Musical Is Absolutely Not About the Beach Boys

Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson’s biomusical about Terri Hooley makes its US debut.

Cat Barter, Gavin Peden, Jolene O’Hara, Odhrán McNulty, Dylan Reid, and Chris Mohan appear in Good Vibrations: A Punk Rock Musical, directed by Des Kennedy, at Irish Arts Center.
(© Nir Arieli)

I’ve always found the tension between the GI generation (the young victors of World War II) and subsequent western generations to be somewhat baffling. If the triumph of liberalism over fascism meant anything at the micro level, it was the right of individuals to determine the shape of their own lives regardless of their demographic profile or the expectations of the state. Are not the pot-smoking free-loving hippie and the tattooed pink-haired punk the ultimate expressions of that victory?

Terri Hooley thinks so. He’s the founder of the short-lived but influential Belfast record shop and independent label Good Vibrations, and the subject of the eponymous 2013 movie. Lyric Theatre, Belfast, has turned that film into a new stage musical, which is now making its US debut at Irish Arts Center in a highly energetic production that nevertheless feels bloated in its presentation of a worthwhile tale.

A musical titled Good Vibrations was always going to be a tough sell for a New York audience still surfing the memories of the 2005 Beach Boys jukebox musical flop. Good Vibrations: A Punk Rock Musical couldn’t be further in subject and tone from that brainless tuner, and the stubborn persistence of writers Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson in retaining the title speaks to the story’s punk rock origins.

Glen Wallace plays Terri Hooley in Good Vibrations: A Punk Rock Musical, directed by Des Kennedy, at Irish Arts Center.
(© Nir Arieli)

It takes place in Belfast in the ’70s and ’80s, during the height of the sectarian “troubles” between Protestants and Catholics. “I don’t consider myself either,” says Terri (Glen Wallace). He just wants to play Reggae and Motown records and have a good time. With the support of his wife, Ruth (Jayne Wisener), he opens a record shop on Great Victoria Street, which the bank manager (Gavin Peden) from whom he secures a business loan incredulously calls “Bomb Alley.” Terri’s mother (Christina Nelson) worries for his safety, and his socialist father (Marty Maguire) thinks he’s a capitalist sellout. Meanwhile, a local RUC officer (pointedly also Maguire) seems to be actively rooting for his failure.

“Excuse me, officer, I’d like to report a civil war outside,” Terri cheekily tells that same policeman, who has infiltrated an underground punk rock concert to sniff breaths and raise hackles. That concert, which features local acts The Outcasts and Rudi, convinces Terri to start his own record label, since no one else is recording these bands. A persistent campaign of promotion eventually gets Terri’s bands on the radio and then, Top of the Pops — just as his marriage begins to unravel.

Terri emerges as a heroic, if very flawed character in Carberry and Patterson’s telling, which often feels more like a play with an expansive amount of music than a traditional book musical. The score consists of songs from the Good Vibrations label, including “Big Time” by Rudi and (most joyously) “Teenage Kicks” by the Undertones. There are also more surprising selections, like “Past, Present and Future” by the Shangri-La’s and “I Saw the Light” by Hank Williams, a testament to Hooley’s eclectic taste.

The production benefits from Wallace’s magnetic portrayal of Terri as an irrepressible optimist. He’s always at the center of the story, which is why it is notable that we never hear him sing until the final scene, a powerful closing moment that shows the musicians and instruments disappearing around him until it is only Terri alone onstage, singing his lungs out.

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The cast of Good Vibrations: A Punk Rock Musical, directed by Des Kennedy, at Irish Arts Center.
(© Nir Arieli)

The entire cast of actor-musicians rises to meet Wallace’s level of commitment, with energetic, sweaty performances. Dylan Reid is bringing Billie Joe Armstrong vigor to his performance as Undertones front man Feargal Sharkey. And Odhrán McNulty is the right combination of menacing and vulnerable in his portrayal of Rudi lead singer Ronnie Matthews. Jolene O’Hara exudes attitude as Polly the Punk. All together, they capture the spirit of a subculture.

Director Des Kennedy stages at a breakneck pace in the first act, blasting through the exposition with great efficiency. Grace Smart’s set, which loosely depicts the shop, proves versatile enough to support any number of locations (it helps that the walls are festooned with vinyl and instruments, like a punk rock Cracker Barrel). Jack Knowles distinguishes between scenes and creates an underground concert vibe with his lighting. And costume designer Gillian Lennox delivers a Vivienne Westwood runway show of punk looks, undermined only slightly by the fact that none of these characters ever seem to change outfits over the course of several years (one need blessedly only imagine the authentic punk smell).

Despite excellent performances, Good Vibrations suffers from that most endemic of musical theater ailments when it sags in the second act. It is sometimes difficult to discern where we are and who is speaking to whom as multiple storylines from Terri’s personal and professional life collide. The songs do little to clear up the storytelling as, in true punk rock fashion, the lyrics are only partially intelligible (poorly balanced sound design by Ian Vennard).

Good Vibrations is by no means a perfect musical, but it conveys both the specific era and the enduring idea of punk with tremendous verve. It wasn’t just an aesthetic for these kids, but a powerful expression of freedom.

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