Dances with boards: "Locals Only" tries to ride a great wave

After over a year in production, "Locals Only," the much heralded, first ever collaboration between multiple Santa Monica College departments, has finally premiered on the campus main stage. The expensive, ambitious project is a musical fairy tale full of adolescent views of love, life and the perils of messing with someone else's graffiti. Much work went into assembling and preparing "Locals Only", and it shows on stage in its colorful set designs, multimedia elements and hastily slapped together musical numbers. It would be unfair to deny that this was a massive undertaking with much talent involved.

The mind behind the book and concept was Bill Borden, the brilliant architect of "High School Musical", and a line of highly popular Barbie and Ken dolls based on the smarmy characters. Indeed, "Locals Only" is peppered with the same kind of dreamy-eyed teenage spirit of that series, it almost plays like an alternate reality. This is how teenagers would want life to be like, yet it is not.

The plot centers on a red-headed rich girl from the valley, Ariel (Autumn Powers), who wanders into Venice with her best friend and village bicycle, Cindy (Hayley Howe).

Suddenly, Ariel locks eyes with a surfer bum named Buzz Jr. (Harrison Maloeny).

The  star-crossed lovers face the hurtle of local prejudices, as Venice beach heads apparently hate outsiders. Now, Ariel must choose between running off with Buzz or staying with her jock boyfriend, inevitably named Lance (Brandan Cobia). As Weird Al sang, "first world problems."

Buzz, however, struggles with growing up without a father, who died in a vaguely explained freak surfing accident. He is left to be raised solely by his mother who runs a local diner. Buzz Sr. is evidently not much of a loss considering his ghost appears and confesses that she did all the work while he spent most of his time at the beach surfing. What a loaf.

"Locals Only" has a lot of energy. It sings, jumps and bounces around like the hormones of the lead performers. But like many a great effort, it rises and falls. While the set design by Lacey Anzelc is enticing and the light design by Leigh Allen sets a psychedelic tone, "Locals Only" never really knows what it wants to be.

From the get go, it's pretty apparent this show takes its material too seriously. The first scene opens to actors who we assume are beach goers, sitting in a circle, pounding tribal drums with an ominous feeling of cultish communion.

Even the first song number "Boy To Man," feels so overblown as Buzz Jr. emerges from a cloud of fog, almost evoking "Jesus Christ Superstar," as he croons about not having a father and being left "only with this surfboard."

The character of Buzz Sr. (Doug Kiphut), a ghost who narrates the story, and appears and speaks like some kind of surfer mystic, talks about waves in a neo-religious tone. This is fine for a story like the film "Big Wednesday," which is an epic ode to surfing, but not for a mush-ridden melodrama. Think of this musical as the love story from "Grease" recycled through a Disney Channel lens with a touch of repressed hormones.

It was a refreshing experience to see "Locals Only" with a live band beneath the stage. This is rare for a community college setting and it displayed the ambition behind the production.

Yet it is evident that, as the program states, the songs were "written in a short period of time," according to Borden. They thump along with an attempt at being Beatlesque and while the musicians skillfully perform the notes given them, the songs themselves are not terribly catchy. The actors give their all and there is never a noticeable slip in their performances. In a number, they were forced to passionately perform the stereotypical Venice beach-esque muscle-building dousche postcard, "Pumpin". A number so meat-headed, the male characters sing (chant) about weight lifting with the kind of lyrics Sly Stallone hums to himself over breakfast. At one point, if memory serves right, the words say "the muscles want to rip through the skin." Killer pick-up line.

The songs themselves are an assortment of dramatic high notes, quirky off sides and racey, sexual winks. Consider the dance number "Bikini Song." In a pure celebration of objectification, the female leads and fellow cast dance in small bikinis with big smiles singing "we look so tight in our bikinis" while shaking what their mommas gave them. No doubt many in the audience had fun watching, but the song itself is forgettable.

Indeed, throughout "Locals Only" the characters feel like very shallow cartoons. The female characters are essentially air heads who plan to go to college to study something, anything, but find their worlds falling apart over feelings for some real losers. The men aspire to little other than instant gratification and macho turf wars (notice that Buzz Jr. and Ariel never really talk about anything).

The best song in the entire production was probably "Fell In Love Alone," a heartbreaking ballad sung by the character of Jazmin (Nellie Veitenheimer from "The Glee Project"). This surfer-girl Buzz has known for years is obviously someone who is smarter, more intelligent and much more interesting than the vapid Ariel.

Of course, here the play is somewhat true to real life. For once, a character sounds like a real, flesh and blood individual. She loves someone who does not love her back, and per the rules of natural selection has gone for the glossier choice. Here the musical became universal, then it recedes into its bubble gum view of the world.

Much time was invested in making "Locals Only" look professional and slick, yet it limits itself in some areas. For example, it is known the film department shot hours of footage to project on the background wall during the play, yet we only see the same, repetitive footage of the same Venice sidewalk through out. While the student actors perform with focus and dedication, the choreography they are asked to perform can be quite clunky.

"Locals Only" is admirable in its attempt, but lacks in its delivery, at least for this audience member. Maybe you will like it, maybe it will speak to a sense of nostalgic romance to your wave-surfing soul. But for this audience member, it was like watching couples fall in love on Mars.