“This is so reminiscent,” said the guy behind me to his date. “I mean, this is, like, my life.”
I had to sneak a look at him. Young--well, youngish. Hawaiian shirt, baggy white pants, deck shoes. But somehow you saw him behind a desk in a shirt and tie.
A baby-boomer, all right. No wonder he and his date had fallen apart when the cast started playing with slinkies. Remember slinkies? Remember Miss Frances on Ding-Dong School? Remember Nehru jackets? Remember the Watusi?
The show is “The Wonder Years” and some of it may seem a little callow to those of us who define vintage nostalgia as Hop Harrigan on the radio at 5 o’clock. But that may be sibling rivalry. Nobody has ever written as clever a musical revue about our generation.
The show, at the Coronet, is subtitled “The Baby Boom Musical.” It spans the years from World War II to the present, with particular attention to the 1950s and the early 1960s, when the birth rate and the GNP kept going up, and America seemed to have figured everything out, except what to do about the Russians.
Anyone with adult memories of the time knows that this is a myth. But everybody’s childhood is a myth, and this show is about how “the wonder years” felt for those born into them. It is also about the shock of coming out of them, something we have all felt to a degree. Whether the world was a simpler place in ’55, America still trusted itself to be the good guy in it. We have fallen from that innocence since. “The wonder years” are over for everybody.
But the show concentrates on the era’s immediate victims, a generation of happy little girls and boys brought up to drink their orange juice and to pass their Crest tests and to “have it all.” What a shock for them to discover, in the 1980s, that there isn’t that much of it to go around!
The evening’s most traumatic moment is a game show where our five players (Stephen Breithaupt, Patty Tiffany, Wayne Scherzer, Nona Waldeck and Lisa Robinson) compete to be the perfect yuppie. Or rather they start to compete. Buzz! Time’s up! What’s this?, they protest. What about the swimsuit competition? Forget it, smiles the emcee (David Ruprecht). The competition started when you were born, and most of you have lost. Moreover, it has all gone on your (echo mike) PERMANENT RECORD.
That is not at all what Miss Frances had promised our friends, and if there was someone in the principal’s office, they would register a complaint. But the principal seems to have gone home. Welcome to the real world, gang. (Not even the winner of the competition is happy. Having it all is fine, but she was looking for something more.)
If all that sounds a little mean-spirited, it isn’t. The show’s creators--the original idea was Leslie Eberhard’s, the songs are by David Levy and the book is by Levy, Steve Liebman, David Holdgrive and Terry Labolt--are clearly products of the wonder years themselves. That means they have a loving recollection of its fads, its misconceptions, its sex objects, its dances, and its plastic toys. (Anyone can remember slinkies, but you had to have been there to recall Mr. Potato Head.)
They remember it all and they forgive most of it. In fact, “The Wonder Years” may be a little too loving a look at its times. The first act closes with a wimpish number called “Flowers From the Sixties,” reflecting the notion that everything for which the ‘60s stood--political idealism, equality, world peace--is gone, gone with the wind. Not--the viewer wants to say--unless you have given up caring about such things.
The show is on firmer ground when it is exposing ‘60s radicalism (high school variety), as basically a neat way to shock one’s parents. Our prototypical baby-boom baby, Ken (Breithaupt) changes into a mop-topped, bell-bottomed hippie ranting about the meaningless of earthly possessions. That lasts until his dad (Scherzer) dangles the keys to a putative new car in front of his nose.
So Ken drops out of the revolution and joins the Me Generation, as somehow one always knew he would. By the 1980s he is eating Cajun twice a week with his own true love, Iona Condo (Waldeck), who, by happy coincidence, does own a condo. Can “commitment” be far down the line? You better believe it. With options, of course. Ken and Iona are too cool to get locked in to anything.
Another sign of the cold-blooded times is this exchange between Robinson and Waldeck as two pregnant young women in an obstetrician’s office. “Is this your first?” asks Robinson. “Yeah,” says Waldeck off-handedly. “Well, it’s the first I’m gonna have .”
Everything with our generation is multiple choice, says “The Wonder Years”; maybe that’s why we’re a little plastic. The most plastic of them all is Ruprecht as a smiling young figure named “Bernard (Skippy) Harmon.” He, it appears, was the very first baby-boom baby way back in 1946 and he has been merchandising himself in that capacity ever since.
Ruprecht manages to evoke a cloying, ever-young TV emcee of the Dick Clark variety, while being rather likable himself. Behind his plastic cheer, one senses a real cheer--brainless, but not unwelcome in a comedy review.
“The Wonder Years” must have had some anxiety about what to do with Vietnam, AIDS and a few of the more awful episodes of recent social history. Its wise solution is to glance away from them, just as its characters would do. (Iona Condo is not going to get all that upset about stuff in the newspapers.) There is a gay number--Scherzer’s “Taking Him Home to Mom"--but it’s kept light and upbeat. Just as well: This show isn’t about deep thought.
Perhaps its cleverest stroke is the last number, when the question is asked: When will the baby boomers stop being consumers and actually, as the phrase used to go, do something for the world? We learn that this is to happen on the 100th anniversary of Woodstock, when our friends finally decide it is time to live up to their potential. In a few years, they manage to rid the world of hunger, disease, war and unemployment. “We would have done more,” Ruprecht recalls, tremblingly, from the future. “But by that time we were old .”
So we leave on a note of hope, amplified with pleasure at having seen some talented young people in a show that manages, without pretention, to say a little something about the way we live now and how we got there. “The Wonder Years” is advertising its last weeks, but it has a chance to run forever if everybody in Los Angeles who can identify with it sees it; and even we Depression kids have got to admit that it’s pretty funny stuff. But when do we get our show?