A Raucous and Bittersweet Ride, Along With Unexpected Nuance, in Punk Musical ‘Good Vibrations’

The show delivers more creativity and sheer entertainment value than any musical hagiography or trumped-up pop showcase you’ve likely seen on Broadway in years.

Nir Arieli
Cat Barter, Gavin Peden, Jolene O’Hara, Odhrán McNulty, Dylan Reid, and Chris Mohan in 'Good Vibrations.' Nir Arieli

Punk music can be a contradiction in terms. Forged in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a response to the pomposity of corporate rock, and a thumbing of the nose to the larger establishment, the movement was also marked by a disdain for virtuosity or, in fact, artistic competence. And it came to embrace its own excesses, as anyone who has endured the bombastic mess that is “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” could attest. 

But punk’s DIY ethic and relative minimalism also informed some of the most intuitive and inventive bands and artists that emerged in its wake, among them Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, and The Police. Northern Ireland’s The Undertones wouldn’t produce as wide or enduring a catalog, but the group channeled its blazing energy with enough of a pop sensibility to generate a few hit singles in the U.K. and attract major label interest across the pond.

The Undertones proved the most successful of several acts signed by a Belfast-based record label called Good Vibrations, though the label’s founder, one Terri Hooley, barely made a dime off of them: Mr. Hooley, in true anti-capitalist fashion, sold rights to the band’s music to the American behemoth Sire Records for 500 pounds, a few albums, and an autographed picture of the 1960s girl group the Shangri-Las.

That transaction is just one of the foibles documented in “Good Vibrations: A Punk Rock Musical,” adapted from a fondly-remembered 2012 film by its screenwriters, Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson. Arriving off-Broadway after an acclaimed run at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, the show is even less a true musical than most other jukebox outings, in that its score — which features songs recorded by the Undertones and a few of their label mates alongside tunes by better-known acts like The Jam, Siouxie and the Banshees, and even Hank Williams — serves less to drive the plot than to provide atmosphere, and recreate concert performances at times.

Yet under Des Kennedy’s brisk, loving direction, “Good Vibrations” delivers more creativity and sheer entertainment value than any musical hagiography or trumped-up pop showcase you’ve likely seen on Broadway in years. Messrs. Carberry and Patterson never stoop to sentimentality or camp, those preferred (and often, oddly, combined) approaches for such theater pieces, opting instead to combine a compelling and surprisingly nuanced story with exhilarating musical numbers.

Glen Wallace leads the cast as Mr. Hooley, whose poignant back story is established early on. Born to a father who had served as a Labor politician in England, he suffered a childhood accident that left him with a glass eye. Undeterred by either this development or the Troubles that exploded in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, he opened a Belfast record shop, also called Good Vibrations, in 1977 — unlike the label, it still stands — where Protestants and Catholics could, if they wished, bond over a shared passion for a band or recording.

As documented here, Mr. Hooley took the same approach in signing and nurturing artists, among them other seminal punk outfits such as the Outcasts and the lesser-known Rudi. Intercepted by soldiers while traveling with members of the latter group, the fledgling executive is asked, incredulously, if the musicians belong to both warring religions; he responds, “It never occurred to me to ask.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Hooley’s courage and ambition were not, by this account, accompanied by a sense of discipline or fiscal responsibility, and his fondness for booze took a further toll on both his business and his marriage to the poet Ruth Carr, played by a graceful Jayne Wisener. The excellent cast also includes Marty Maguire, doubling as the protagonist’s concerned dad and the legendary British disc jockey John Peel, and Darren Franklin as a concerned friend and colleague who tries to rescue the younger Mr. Hooley from his own demons.

Those demons are acknowledged in the show’s rollicking but ultimately haunting finale, which celebrates the fearless rejection of conformity that defined punk as much as the music while suggesting the consequences such defiance can exact when taken to an extreme. It’s a fitting end to the raucous and bittersweet ride that is “Good Vibrations,” and will send you on your way both shaken and uplifted — and perhaps eager to check out a new track or two on Spotify or iTunes.   

The New York Sun

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