The third annual New York Ukulele Festival is upon us. This year, it brings with it a brand new musical about a ragtag band of ukulele players who save the world from a fascist dystopia run by an all-powerful pharmaceutical company. Upon reading this, some of you may have already grabbed your credit cards and datebooks while others may be making a mental note to stay out of the East Village for a couple of weeks. Both are understandable reactions. Sex! Drugs! & Ukuleles!, written by festival founder Uke Jackson, is an ostensibly activist, anti-corporate kitsch-fest set in a not-too-distant future. Sex is illegal. Monogamy is outlawed. Excessive sadness, happiness, anger, and lust are all medicated away by legislative mandate. Only the “corporate top ten” musical acts are allowed to perform and sell their music. Max (John Forkner), Liz (Lindsay Foreman), and Julie (Meg Cavanaugh) are three spirited young musicians who dream of cracking the top ten and bringing their smiley-faced music to the masses but have little hope of doing so until they meet Pete (Andrew Guilarte), a back-alley ruffian who may or may not have once been one of the top ten himself. Fame and fortune, twists and turns, and a revolution of sorts ensue.
The intentionally cornball, slapstick energy works for a while and the performers bring admirable enthusiasm and comic timing to a show that is clearly a lot of fun to perform. Terry Waldo’s music, performed by the actors and by two onstage musicians (Waldo on piano and John Gill on percussion) is enjoyable in its way, though fourteen songs in an eighty-minute show that’s also chock-full of plot and dialogue make for a rushed and superficial experience that doesn’t embody feel-good nostalgia so much as declare it. The result is rather like being surrounded by shouting, grinning theme-park performers who keep asking “Isn’t this fun?!? Huh?! Huh?!? Isn’t it?!?” without giving you a chance to respond.
Indeed, for a play that purports to deplore the dehumanized superficiality of contemporary culture, Sex! Drugs! & Ukuleles! presents the audience with a surprisingly one-note idea of what “good music” is. Just as the fictional citizenry of the Corporation are sedated into a chemical contentment, the audience for this show are asked to respond in an almost Pavlovian manner to music that signifies a tiki-bar vision of happy playfulness.
Ironically enough, the vision of authentic, heartfelt, handmade music presented by Jackson’s play relies on nostalgia for an aesthetic almost as artificial as 21st-century top-ten pop. The ukulele and the homegrown Hawaiian music it represented were repackaged, appropriated, and commodified by Tin Pan Alley songwriters and vaudeville producers who smelled “the next big thing.” Having recently annexed Hawaii, the United States quickly plasticized, commercialized, and capitalized on its culture, selling the world a vision of smiling, hip-swaying natives in coconut-shell bras who wanted nothing more than to serve as hotel lobby entertainment for vacationers from the mainland. Ukulele players from Ernest Kai, to Eddie Kamae, to Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, to Jake Shimabukuro have shown again and again that their instrument of choice is capable of a great deal more.
It is telling that “ukulele” is mispronounced (from a Hawaiian perspective) throughout the play. Sex! Drugs! & Ukuleles! can all too easily be read as a celebration of and nostalgia for the willful ignorance of early-American imperialism. It may seem unfair to saddle a such a lighthearted show with that kind of baggage, but wistful evocations of simpler, happier times tend to rely on distortions of history and culture that carry their own dangers and pitfalls. I can’t help but wonder whether, 90 years from now, a sweet and silly show with energetic young performers will mourn for the simpler, happier music of Britney’s first CD.