‘Surf the Musical’ weaves Beach Boys songs into boy-loses-girl comedy

Kristin Hanggi’s roads always seem to lead back to California. And perhaps to Frankie and Annette.

Hanggi is enjoying a year not even one of Cirque du Soleil’s directors can claim: having two big-budget titles – both about California – open on the Strip in 2012.

Hanggi directed the Broadway hit “Rock of Ages,” which is booked for a sit-down run at The Venetian starting in December. But her follow-up to the campy ’80s spoof/tribute of the Sunset Strip jumps back two more decades in time.

“Surf the Musical,” opening Wednesday at Planet Hollywood Resort, is a jukebox musical licensing the songs of the Beach Boys. It weaves the classic songs into a boy-loses-girl comedy American-International Pictures might have filmed during its “Beach Party” run of the early ’60s.

“I gravitate to these stories that are about the West Coast, and a lot of those are boy-meets-girl stories,” the director acknowledged during a recent press preview of four numbers from the new show, which has its grand opening July 17.

Perhaps it’s because she didn’t have to go to the drive-in to see “Bikini Beach.” Hanggi and first-time producer J. Burton Gold share a Southern California nostalgia; Gold and Hanggi’s mother even had firsthand experience with the early-’60s lifestyle that inspired California’s quintessential pop band.

“My mom grew up in Redondo Beach, and all her photo albums are pictures of these people in the early ’60s on the beach. They feel like Beach Boys songs right there captured,” she says.

“I just got emotional thinking about how (‘Surf’) would be in some way a love letter to Southern California and all the families there. And not only that, but to everyone the Beach Boys touched. They brought the beach all the way across the country and the world.”

Gold and co-producers Michael Ingram and Skip Klintworth are golf buddies with diverse business backgrounds, united by Gold’s inspiration to stage a Beach Boys jukebox musical after seeing the group perform in 2008.

He eventually lined up the rights to nearly 200 songs in the band’s catalog, if not the hands-on approval of the group. The Beach Boys are, after all, a bit busy this year with a reunion album and tour. “We’re just hoping that when they come and see it that they love it as much as we do,” Hanggi says.

Surviving Beach Boys Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine have the right to keep a skeptical distance, after a previous jukebox musical called “Good Vibrations” ran for only 94 performances in 2005.

But the producers say that one was too show-tuney, not like Hanggi’s “Rock of Ages,” which melded theater with rock concert.

This from-scratch creation is a big investment, complete with a stage backdrop made of high-definition video panels, an A-list creative team and even a familiar face in the supporting cast: Adrian Zmed of “Grease 2” fame.

In the same way “Mamma Mia!” dug deep into the Abba catalog, “Surf” leaves out some favorites when more obscure tracks such as “That’s Not Me” better fit the story (Sorry, “Be True to Your School.” This class has graduated).

“The exciting thing was going back to some of these Beach Boys songs and going, ‘That’s the most beautiful song I ever heard. That has to be in there,’ ” Hanggi says.

Working from a story by Gold and his son-in-law scenarist Jason Setterlund, the creative team stitched the songs into the story of aspiring musician Tanner (Marshal Kennedy Carolan) returning to his beachside home after the big city denies him rock stardom, only to discover Brooke, the girl he left behind (Lauren Zakrin) now belongs to his former bandmate and new rival Rip (Alex Ringler).

If the B-movie triangle echoes the love-torn innocents of “Rock of Ages” (at least the movie’s version, more fresh-scrubbed and monogamous than their stage counterparts), Hanggi says “Surf” is kinder and family-friendly.

“It’s funny, but it’s sweet funny,” she says. If “Rock of Ages” is full of what she calls “Jack Black or Will Ferrell man humor,” this one speaks in a softer tone. “There’s a nostalgia; there’s an optimism.”

And, she adds, “just a hint of playful campiness. Just a dash of Annette (Funicello).”

And just a dash of Annette’s bikini, which would be called granny panties today. The cheekier “Surf” costumes reinterpret the ’60s with the same revisionist eye that RJ Durell gives the choreography.

“I wanted to make sure people who loved the Beach Boys and were part of that era were going to see those iconic moves that they know,” Durell says. But those come with “kind of blowing the lid off it and giving it a brand new fresh energy.”

Durell worked on Cirque’s touring Michael Jackson tribute “The Immortal,” but more of his work was with pop stars such as Katy Perry and Madonna. (He stopped short of seeing “Rock of Ages” all the way to Broadway because Madonna called with her Confessions Tour.)

This time, “I’m not worried about the pop star in the center (so) I get to really look at the whole big picture and all the storytelling and let that drive the movement,” Durell says.

He watched ’60s movies ranging from obvious inspirations such as “Gidget” to the less likely “West Side Story,” just to see what was going on then.

“When I watch those movies, they were free,” he says. “Most people were doing something different from the person next to them.

“In the ’60s, there was such as sense of fun and freedom and abandon. It really gives me a great platform to reinterpret it in this kind of modern show we’re doing here.”

The creators feel a similar freedom working on the Strip. The producers took a big financial gamble by not workshopping a lower-budget version of “Surf” in a less-expensive setting.

But there’s a byproduct of going big from the get-go. “I love being outside the Broadway box,” Hanggi says. “Being in Vegas is really freeing. I feel like there’s this deep spirit of play because we feel liberated.”

Playing in a sandbox, one could say.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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