By its title "Willy Nilly: A Musical Exploitation of the Most Far-Out Cult Murders of the Psychedelic Era" ("being tastefully presented to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the infamous Manson murders" as the program reads) would seem to be the perfect FringeNYC finger to give to the summer of the mainstream establishment's "Hair" on Broadway and "Taking Woodstock" onscreen. And to its credit this Piper McKenzie Production is some merry prankster-ish fun. With its enthusiastic cast sporting over-the-top hippie wear, colorful set that makes the most of minimalism with cardboard flowers and wooden stools, and rockin' musical numbers that allow the actors to fill in the design's visual gaps with exuberantly executed choreography, "Willy Nilly" moves as fast as its psycho guru lead does in assembling his Manson-like tribe. That is, "like a hotbed Brigham Young," according to the D.A. character played by the musical's playwright/lyricist/composer Trav S.D. who also notes that the Family's "names have been changed for the author's amusement."
Unfortunately, it moves like a treadmill and while "Willy Nilly" might work as a schlock, midnight movie musical the piece as a whole does not add up to the sum of its body parts. Like a flower child it's overflowing with ideas, none of which are carried through to full bloom. Avery Pearson is just fine as Willy, and there are several small standout turns such as Daryl Lathon's Mr. Buckets (one of three characters the actor plays) who like the narrator D.A. brings the repetitive, one-note weird pitch down with his deadpan delivery of apropos-of-nothing lines ("You know you can make a shiv from twine and a hobo's tooth?"). But the musical's staging simply doesn't push the envelope far enough visually. Director Jeff Lewonczyk (also co-artistic director of Piper McKenzie) makes little use of the actual space, misses a prime opportunity in the huge white wall behind the performers, a glaringly blank canvas save for the small live band discreetly placed stage right. What should have been the musical's most spectacular scene - of the gruesome killings of Poland Romanski's wife and unborn child and friends - while bathed in red lighting and executed in evocative slo-mo, drips not one drop of stage blood. Willy's tribe may have drunk the Kool Aid but they lack the shocking punch. In the end "Willy Nilly" is less like the hilariously disturbing, messy masterpieces of Martin McDonagh, and more like one of those soothingly predictable, clean episodes of "The Monkees." But two full hours with no intermission of "Daydream Believer" could drive even the sweetest little old lady to dream of stabbing Davy Jones.