Theater Review: Lagunatics' poke is gentle

A few months ago on Netflix, I rewatched a group of "Saturday Night Live" episodes from two decades back. It was an odd experience. The jokes were still cleverly constructed, but with Dan Quayle's tongue slips and Bill Clinton's scandals now distant memories, I found myself nodding with recognition rather than laughing out loud.

"Satire," playwright George S. Kaufman famously said, "is what closes on Saturday night."

Lagunatics, the annual song and dance revue parodying life around Laguna Beach, faced this quandary when its 2013 show "Gagtime," originally slated for October, got pushed back to January because of a mold problem at the Forum Theater. At least two numbers portrayed issues that had changed or passed by the introduction of the new year, and even the others had three more months of distance from their original inspiration.

Maybe it was inevitable, then, that the moment when I laughed hardest Saturday night (Saturday night, how about that?) came when Bill Harris, who played a radio announcer at various points throughout the show, told the audience that he had "just lost my last job as life coach for Justin Bieber."

Considering how many times Bieber has hit the scandal sheet lately, that line could have been in the October script, but it felt contemporary even if it wasn't.

With moments like that few and far between, the show had the easy feel of camaraderie. The performers and audience may have known that some of the material was past its sell-by date, but the lack of timeliness left more time to focus on craft and energy. In that regard, the 21st annual Lagunatics revue delivered the goods — especially for Laguna residents, who might have chuckled at the in-jokes the way any of us might at a high school reunion speech.

OK, then, what might a stranger have learned from watching "Gagtime"? Well, for one thing, Lagunans are really, really wealthy (that came up more than once). They value their ocean views (one sketch featured a public hearing with residents, among them a chainsaw-wielding woman, debating the aesthetic value of trees). They sometimes have trouble finding a parking space in the tourist season but, with a major museum and theater a block or two from the beach, have a way of putting their woes in perspective.

With more than half the night taken up by music, most of the sketches worked as song parodies in the "Weird Al" Yankovic tradition. The Beatles' "Blackbird" turned into a tune about conquering the mold problem ("Black mold died / It couldn't hide from the fungicide"), while Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" became "Ring of Hire," a story of an actor who failed to net the lead role in the Laguna Playhouse's musical about the country icon.

A gentle town begets gentle comedy, and "Gagtime" was no doubt more easygoing than a revue skewering Detroit or Oakland might be. Only on a couple of occasions did the material feel too polite. The cast paid tribute to same-sex marriage with the peppy "Stuck On You," which featured two male couples harmonizing. But the recent gay-rights breakthroughs — particularly in dyed-in-the-wood red states like Utah and Oklahoma — left opportunities for satire that the number didn't touch.

Likewise, a tune about residents who write letters to the local media, which featured the Coastline Pilot as a prop, didn't go for any scathing targets. Still, the show named a specific Pilot contributor in one of its highlights: a winsome folk tune about longtime reporter and columnist Barbara Diamond, whom the writers chided for lack of technical prowess ("The only thing that slows her down / is Barbara won't do email") but heralded as a local institution ("The Coastline is a giveaway / but if it were for selling, you know that we would gladly pay").

As would we, Lagunatics. As would we.

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