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Tabard’s ‘The Poptimists’ pokes gentle fun at Up With People singers

THE ROOT idea behind Tabard Theatre’s new show, The Poptimists, is a clever one. Writer, director and composer Ted Kopulos based the play on a teenage memory of his from the early 1970s. Pulled into assembly at San Jose’s Leigh High School, he and his classmates were subjected to the musical stylings of a traveling troupe of young, clean-cut multiracial performers, who sang unflaggingly upbeat American pop tunes while plugging their sponsor, Chrysler-Plymouth (may they rest in peace). In the vein of Up With People, the red-white-and-blue-clad The Poptimists aims to re-create and poke fun at the ’70s musical phenomenon of these perky, short-haired, necktied kids singing insipid songs about patriotism and the merits of capitalism. Putting “the hoot in hootenanny,” the group is brought to you by the fictional clean nuclear power provider DynoSunCo.

Unfortunately, The Poptimists does not take the joke far enough into the realm of satire, and the result is a production that could really only be truly funny to the people it’s making fun of. The script and songs poked fun when they should have skewered, and relied too heavily on lyrical puns that lose their novelty in the second half.

Backed by their own live band—which, granted, was a nice touch—the nine-member group is made up of Mimi (Jennifer Aguilar), Andy (Ben D’Angelo), Billy (Nes Fragoso), Stacy (Tori Klaben), Michael (John Eubank), Derek (Shawn Miller), Wanda (Lonnique Genelle), Julie (Breigh Zack) and Kim (Denise Lum). Playing on the fact that the troupe is predominantly white and middle-class, the only truly witty number they perform is “Not So Different,” in Act 2, in which the token brainy Asian Kim, soul sister Wanda and vaguely ethnic Billy are shunned to the rear of the stage. Miller as the group’s prancing closet case Derek generated some genuine laughs, as did Klaben’s dim and slutty Stacy.

Now, when I first read of the concept of this production, it made me think of the recent Slamdance documentary Smile ’Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story. That film presents the evolution of the real-life singing group as a counter to the hippie subculture, showing culty leanings rooted in right-wing politics, as well as funding by corporate entities like Halliburton and Exxon. The Poptimists could have mined this sort of documentary for more laughs but instead chose a more straightforward, deadpan tone that just doesn’t live up to the Mighty Wind approach it was going for.

In the end, this world-premiere production was just too nice, much like its cheesy source material. Still, the idea is a good one, and would benefit from some rewriting and a little more bite.

THE POPTIMISTS, a Tabard Theatre Company production, plays Tuesday–Friday at 8pm, and Saturday at 3 and 8pm through Dec. 12 at the Theatre on San Pedro Square, 29 N. San Pedro St., San Jose. Tickets are $10–$24, call 800.838.3006.