La Jolla opens spectacle-packed premiere with ‘Up Here’

Up Here—the latest project from Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez—opened at La Jolla Playhouse last night…

The cast of 'Up Here' bring to life anything in Dan's mind, and Dan's got a lot on his mind. (Photo-Matthew Murphy/ San Diego Union-Tribune)

The cast of ‘Up Here’ bring to life anything in Dan’s mind, and Dan’s got a lot on his mind. (Photo-Matthew Murphy/ San Diego Union-Tribune)

Now, before jumping into this review, we should acknowledge the elephant in the room.  And the gorilla.  And the giraffe.  And the ninja.  And the quintet of figures hiding in the corner.

As for the elephant, let us recognize the multitude of eyes that are, have been, and will be scrutinizing the development of Up Here.  As the first project for the husband and wife songwriting team since their immense success with Frozen, the creative duo face enormous pressure from both musical theatre nerds and casual “Let It Go” hummers everywhere.

As for the gorilla and the giraffe, they are Up Here’s choreographer and director*.  These two powerhouse talents— Joshua Bergasse and Alex Timbers—also come with their fair share of expectation.  Timbers last brought success to La Jolla Playhouse with Peter and the Starcatcher(s).  Bergasse’s choreography for Broadway’s On the Town recently earned a Tony nom.  (He’s already got an Emmy for his work on Smash.)

Regarding the ninja, in general, it’s worth mentioning there is one in this show; in particular, let us recognize that this show conjures characters as quickly as our protagonist—Dan—can imagine them.  That anything could appear out of thin air can be a luxury in storytelling, but it also poses a risk.  Dan’s “anything” includes but is not limited to boy scouts, lumberjacks, wizard cats, cacti Rockettes, and Pacific Islanders.

And as for that group in the corner, wait…who is that over there?  I can’t quite see them…OH!  It’s the cast of Disney Pixar’s new animated film, Inside Out!  Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, Anger!  Come on out here!  No need to hide!  It is only a coincidence that your movie came out mere months prior to Up Here’s opening and deals with the same conceit of personified emotions.  No hard feelings.  But since the film was first, the chances are likely that when describing Up Here, laymen will say, “You know, it’s like Inside Out:  The Musical!”

…Now that we’ve identified these imaginary forces in the room and the mammoth pressures they place on the success of the show, let’s deal with the imaginary forces onstage.  The catchphrase from La Jolla marketing has been “a musical comedy with a lot on its mind”:  a brilliant description.  This review can’t even start without a five-paragraph detour.  Put plainly, it’s a lot.  And that’s partly the point.  The human mind is colorful, noisy, and relentless, and so is Up Here.

A thirty-something IT guy named Dan (Matt Bittner) and a spunky t-shirt designer named Lindsay (Betsy Wolfe) wonder whether they can really ever know each other. (Photo-Mathew Murphy

A thirty-something IT guy named Dan (Matt Bittner) and a spunky t-shirt designer named Lindsay (Betsy Wolfe) wonder whether they can really ever know each other. (Photo-Mathew Murphy

When the runaway train of Dan’s mind chugs into a station for a moment of calm, the audience is able to digest and connect with this fragile, modern love story.  These moments of relative stillness in a maelstrom of thought are also the most enchanting bits of storytelling.  Dan and Lindsay’s “I Feel Like I’ve Always Known You” is warm and simple.  Lindsay’s titular-eschewing number “Up There” is a heartfelt plea for Dan to communicate with her.  The duet “Like a Stranger” that they share in their respective analyst’s office is hilarious and clever.  But the action rarely stays settled for too long as Dan’s inner demons propel him ever onwards—usually into a production number.  The show teeters constantly between tender and lollapalooza.

Matt Bittner portrays our hero with impish, introverted charm.  Betsy Wolfe endows Lindsay with pluck and spirit.  Both have pipes to spare.  One advantage of the aforementioned moments of stillness is being able to enjoy listening to these two sing without distraction.  The rest of the ensemble portrays dozens of characters.  Dozens.  The cast of internal characters more or less forms two camps:  Dark Forces and Light Forces.  The quartet of Dark Forces include Cool Guy (Andrew Call), Cool Girl (Gizel Jiminez), Humbug (Devere Rogers), and Critic (Jeff Hiller).  At odds with these forces are Mr. Can-Do (Devin Ratray) and Captain of the Guard (Kikau Alvaro).  In particular, Hiller and Alvaro elicit guffaws.  The strong ensemble delivers explosive vocals and dance.  Kudos also to Eric Petersen—in a nod to Kristen’s own brother who is undiagnosed but lies somewhere on the spectrum—who portrays Lindsay’s slightly touched brother, Tim.  Though Tim’s situation is secondary to Dan’s, this bit of characterization adds richness.  When the moral of the story comes around for Dan and Lindsay that we never really can know everything about people “up here,” we also think of Tim.

Two major concepts of the show prove to be the greatest potential obstacles to an audience’s understanding.  Firstly, the parallel story of ‘The Rock’ gives a humorous history of Manhattan’s geology while helping us feel pride, fear, and joy for an “inanimate” object.  (As a side note, The Rock’s etude is quite lovely.)  Dan’s story collides—rather literally—with The Rock’s at the climax of the show.  The second obstacle is Tim’s mantra “There is no such thing as the number one.”  Despite a musical number with the same name providing a lengthy exegesis on the matter, the audience’s attention bounces between singer, animation, and unfolding action—missing half the explanation.

For all its production value, Up Here is a simple story that shows immense heart.  Timbers and Bergasse manage those heartfelt moments the best, but all of the flash is also fun.  Scenic designer David Korins brings a set that moves easily between the interior mind and the exterior world, almost reminiscent The Drowsy Chaperone at timesDavid J. Weiner’s lighting design is—to quote the show itself—“kaleidoscopic.”  Costume designer Ann Closs-Farley deserves praise for simply the sheer quantity and variety of costumes required for this whimsical story.   Music Director Aron Accurso leads a first-rate orchestra.

No doubt, Up Here will continue to grow and seek a life on Broadway.  La Jolla Playhouse has proven to be a nurturing place for works at this stage of development, and Up Here is lucky to be in their capable hands.  Maybe that elephant could go in the show.

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Up Here runs at La Jolla Playhouse through September 6.

*Any likeness between the creative team and actual jungle creatures is purely coincidental. 

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Cygnet introduces San Diego to ‘Dogfight’

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Dogfight is a Vietnam-era story about a trio of Marines on the eve of their deployment.  Sorta kinda like On the Town but with more, umm…malice, the three take part in an elaborate game whereby they find the ugliest girl they can and bring her to a party for judging.  Victory goes to the most unattractive girl, and the Marine who brought her wins the pot.  This plan goes topsy-turvy when our hero, Eddie Birdlace finds he is kinda sorta falling for the girl he brought, Rose Fenny, and begins to question the whole ritual.  After a jam-packed evening of events, the two emerge changed…sorta kinda.

Charles Evans, Jr., Ben Gibson, Eric Von Metzke, Scott Nickley, Alex Hoeffler, Patrick Osteen and Bryan Charles Feldman plan their big night on the eve of their deployment.  (Ken Jacques)

Charles Evans, Jr., Ben Gibson, Eric Von Metzke, Scott Nickley, Alex Hoeffler, Patrick Osteen and Bryan Charles Feldman plan their big night on the eve of their deployment. (Ken Jacques)

Dogfight is a bittersweet story, and this dichotomous description proves just as apt for the current production playing at Cygnet Theatre as it does for the content of the story itself.  Artistic Director Sean Murray directs a cast that is sometimes wonderful and sometimes understaged in a musical story that is sometimes wonderful and sometimes understated.  It’s both bitter and sweet, but rarely at the same time.

First of all, a dichotomy runs through the show’s very structure.  Act I takes the audience on a terrific ride of musical sequences.  It naturally paces itself, because so much of it is scored.  Act II, on the other hand, introduces a number of scenes that suddenly slows down the action.  The difference in pace between the two acts is palpable. It languishes mostly from too much sitting—restaurant, tattoo parlor, and bridge scenes, for example—as well as a self-indulgent tendency of many of the actors to deliver lines a little too profoundly, touch noses a little too broodingly, and court a little too tentatively.

Individual performances also fall into this “bittersweet” dichotomy.  Caitie Grady sings the role of Rose beautifully; she has the best musical material in the show.  “Nothing Short of Wonderful” and “Pretty Funny” are terrific.  Some of Rose’s one-liners are real zingers, and Grady fires them against the Marines with precision.  But there’s an inherent problem in casting this leading lady.  Rose needs to be believably unattractive enough to be considered a contender for the Dogfight, but the role would be unsuited for a character actor.  Or would it?  There’s an unfortunate question that can pop up in this situation, one that probably came up at the casting table and one that certainly came up over post-show drinks:  “Is Rose too pretty?”  Back-handed compliments aside, Grady gives a fine performance.

Our leading man poses another problem that is—again—partly the show’s fault.  Patrick Osteen brings everything that an audience could want in its hero, Eddie Birdlace.  Youthful exuberance:  check.  Wailin’ vocals:  check.  Smoldering good looks:  check.  Unfortunately, Eddie Birdlace is a jerk.  He’s a conflicted jerk, but a jerk.  Even though the audience watches him (sorta kinda) grapple with the morality of this terrible contest, by the end of Act I, Rose gives him a tongue-lashing we’re grateful to watch him receive.  In a strange way, things wrap up rather tidily at the end of Act I.  The only reason we care about Eddie enough to come back and see more is because Act II is printed in the program and because we’ve all seen a musical before and know this is not how musicals usually end.

Patrick Osteen and Caitie Grady find common ground on the Golden Gate Bridge.  (Ken Jacques)

Patrick Osteen and Caitie Grady find common ground on the Golden Gate Bridge. (Ken Jacques)

In the way of supporting roles, Sarah Errington shines as Marcy.  Errington gets the title song, and her belting rendition satisfies lovers of contemporary musical theatre.  Alex Hoeffler and Scott Nickley play fellow marines Boland—the hardened, street-wise one—and Bernstein—the naive, fresh-faced one—respectively.  They’re playing to archetypes here with varying success.  Hoeffler’s detached Boland plays more like a wooden soldier, while Nickley’s frantic Bernstein is more endearing.  Rounding out the cast is a variety of Cygnet veterans and newcomers.

Winner of the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical in 2013, Dogfight also received nominations for Drama Desk, Drama League, and Outer Critics Circle Awards.  Productions of Dogfight are going up all over the West Coast and the Midwest including a slew of universities.  This spring brought first productions to Sydney and Amsterdam.  Composer/lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul—like their show—are enjoying some popularity at the moment.  Their new show Dear Evan Hansen is running now at Arena Stage.

(Photo courtesy of PasekandPaul.com)

Collaborations of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul include ‘Edges,’ ‘James and the Giant Peach,’ and the brand spankin’ new ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’ (Photo courtesy of PasekandPaul.com)

Musical Director Terry O’Donnell conducts a fine chamber orchestra; both solo and ensemble vocals are quite nice throughout.  David Brannen choreographed the macho-Marine movement sequences.  Sean Fanning’s set is outstanding.

Cygnet’s production runs through August 23 at Old Town Theatre.  Feminists should probably avoid Dogfight; then again, feminists looking for some fresh meat would find a feast here.

St. Louis Review features YSP program, new original musical ‘Just Pretend’

Thanks to Youth Sing Praise alumna Colleen Dulle for the feature article of the new musical ‘Just Pretend’ by Bradley J. Behrmann and Orin Johnson in the St. Louis Review.  The article also includes coverage of the Twitter Talk Back Session following the world premiere.  Photos by Weston Kenney.

Link to the full article here.

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