The culture wars of today have origins that go way back. But they had an important defining moment in the late 1960s, a time when “dropping out” signified liberation for some and self-indulgence for others.

“Summer of Love,” the latest production at the Ogunquit Playhouse, touches on those and related questions. But the musical — written, created and directed by Roger Bean — , in its East Coast premiere here, is mostly about re-creating a sense of the colors, shapes and sounds of that era, or at least a broad-stroke version of them. And, at that, it succeeds at being a very entertaining trip down memory lane.  

Michele Lee, of Broadway, Hollywood and “Knots Landing” fame, adds star power to the proceedings in the role of an elder hippie called Mama. Lee was starring in the Disney film classic “The Love Bug” during the actual period portrayed in the story. So, it’s perhaps doubly appropriate that there is a VW onstage in this show (albeit this time a bus). 

Lee had some of her best moments early in Friday’s performance. While her nonmusical lines were delivered in a decided fairy godmother-ish tone, she came into her own while singing “Make Your Own Kind of Music” to a young woman in a wedding dress, played by Missy Dowse, who has wandered into the realm of Mama’s clan of spirited hippies.

In a Technicolor robe and with flowers in her hair, Lee (who was celebrating her 69th birthday Friday) also gave good voice to the period classic “Get Together.”

Uncertain love is the theme of the show as the runaway bride joins the group in an attempt to escape the “beige” lifestyle offered her by her fiance, played by Doug Carpenter.

After being transformed into a flower child by the diverse array of young hippies she meets, Dowse sang a nice rendition of “Different Drum” in outlining her differences with her betrothed. She generally excelled with songs taking advantage of the middle range of her voice.

Projected Images of social upheaval and war helped to dramatize Carpenter’s take on “Darkness, Darkness” while an ensemble workup, led by Manley Pope of “Signs” was an audience favorite. 

Soara-Joye Ross tore up the place with a full-tilt version of “Piece of My Heart,” made famous by Janis Joplin. And Ben Liebert and cast made “Crystal Blue Persuasion” memorable.

Choreographer Lee Martino deserves notice for enabling some fine individual turns, especially by Katie Lee Hill, and creating a general movement scheme that kept things lively throughout. And the band, directed by Michael Borth, was very good, particularly with the horn work on the two Blood, Sweat & Tears numbers.

Lots of colorful imagery, song and dance make this musical reminiscence well worth the trip, man. 

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

 


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