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Trip of Love

A new '60s nostalgia jukebox musical lands off-Broadway via Japan.

Joey Calveri (center) and Tara Palsha (above) lead the cast of James Walski's Trip of Love at Stage 42.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Trip of Love was always going to be a trip down memory lane for nostalgic baby boomers: The psychedelic imagery outside the newly rebranded Stage 42 (formerly the Little Shubert Theatre) makes no secret of that. Neither does the impressive song list, which includes hits like Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" and Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida." With music like that you're bound to have a good time, even if you don't remember the '60s. And really, does anyone actually remember the '60s — especially the folks who were ostensibly there? Based on their extremely dubious presentation of the era and its rebel spirit in this fun yet flawed show, it's clear that the creators of Trip of Love certainly don't.

Created, directed, and choreographed by James Walski, Trip of Love takes the form of variety shows like Shindig! and Hullabaloo. Energetic young dancers create live music videos onstage, often as a prop camera circles. Muscular go-go dancers writhe in man-size lava lamps while Crystal (Tara Palsha) lounges on a giant mushroom. Echoes of a story occasionally emerge, but they are quickly abandoned in favor of the next visually sumptuous dance number. There's no spoken dialogue, only song. In truth, this is a far more intelligent way to do a jukebox musical than what we usually see in New York. Trip of Love doesn't offer a revisionist history of the songwriters (as so many estate-sanctioned shows do), nor does it try to shoehorn its song list into an ultra-contrived plot. It's simply great music performed by a talented cast of vocalists and dancers in various stages of undress thanks to Gregg Barnes' sexy costumes.

That doesn't mean that there aren't clear characters: Peter (the irrepressible Joey Calveri) is a satyr-like artist. Caroline (the adorable Kelly Felthous) is the good girl who ventured down the rabbit hole. Angela (the big-voiced Laurie Wells) is the torch singer who comes out wearing a dramatic gown every time there there's a ballad like "Moon River" or "Both Sides Now." She's sure to make you get a little misty. Everyone plays his or her role with maximum gusto, making this light-and-airy variety throwback feel akin to something you might see in Las Vegas.

Walski reinforces this feeling by leaning into cliché with his choreography. The pony, the twist, the swim: They're all in there and the cast executes them beautifully. This unashamed presentation of evocative imagery and dance is Trip of Love's greatest charm. Robin Wagner's fanciful sets (codesigned with Walski) and Daniel Brodie's psychedelic projections help to create a highly idealized vision of the 1960s. Costume designer Greg Barnes wows us with a tornado of white fringe during the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There." It's all gleefully superficial, only daring to hoist a protest sign when it complements its fabulous knee-high go-go boots.

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Which is why it's so disappointing when the second act tries to say something profound about the extraordinary social change that accompanied this music, but only succeeds in alerting us to the absurdity of the show's premise. Two of the singers are sent to Vietnam during Jacques Brel's "If You Go Away." The denizens of Haight-Ashbury implore us to "make love, not war" while a "black power" protest sign hangs above the stage during "California Dreamin'." It's a pretty awkward moment, especially considering there's only one black person in the show.

That character's name is Jennifer and she's played by Dionne Figgins, who astounds us with her commanding presence as both a vocalist and dancer. That's no small accomplishment considering she has the herculean task of representing all of black America in this fantasy of yesteryear. Truly, for a musical about the popular music of the 1960s, Trip of Love is remarkably whitewashed: It features only one song ("Nowhere to Run") out of the entire Motown catalog. This feels like a big, obvious omission.

Granted, this may not have been a concern that came up during the show's initial run in Osaka, Japan. Audiences there probably appreciated the memorable music and spunky staging without stopping to consider the complicated social context from which it emerged. New York audiences might not be as forgiving. Still, if you're able to enjoy Trip of Love for what it is (a '60s-themed Vegas floor show, not from the Sin City of the actual 1960s, but the family entertainment wonderland of 2015), you'll have a groovy time.

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