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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Can the Music of Broadway Reclaim the Top 40?

This week, the MFAs launch their research projects.  Care to weigh in on my proposal?  Know any resources? Comment below.  

The music of Broadway has always been a genre in dialogue with the popular music of the time.  In the early part of the twentieth century, theatre-goers could expect to hear the music they found in theatres broadcast on that new device—radio—and conversely, they thrilled to hear their favorite radio and parlor hits sung live onstage.  In a not-so-distant era of American popular music, the music of Broadway was popular music.

At some point, however, the dialogue that existed between popular music and Broadway music either fizzled or turned one-sided.  Perhaps both genres amiably departed in their natural evolution or perhaps they split sharply.  At various junctures in musical theatre history, Broadway looked to popular music, but popular music seemed to give little regard to Broadway.  Looking to examples such as Hair, A Chorus Line, Rent, and In the Heights, Broadway certainly responded to popular music, as these shows all evoked the musical style particular to the period in which they were created, namely elements of rock ‘n’ roll, disco, pop rock, and hip-hop.  Whether popular music responded to any of the Broadway shows that so clearly sit rooted in popular music becomes harder to identify.

One data-driven indicator of the relationship between Broadway and popular music lies in a Broadway song’s inclusion in the “Top Forty” charts.  The Top Forty serves as the standard measure for song popularity in the United States, and it stands to reason that any Broadway song that made the charts successfully “crossed over” the genre divide.  Though the Top Forty only goes back to 1951, this research will also seek a measureable record of song popularity prior to that date.  This data can then be used to examine the following questions:

  • Did Broadway music slip gradually from the top forty charts or was it a swift fall?
  • Does the data point to any corresponding social or societal shifts such as new technology or world events?
  • Does the data point to any corresponding events in musical theatre history?
  • Can any correlation be drawn to a shift in song form or other musical factors?
  • Do individual performers have more or less success in bringing Broadway music to the pop charts (e.g.-Barbra Streisand)?

In conclusion, this research will aim to describe the relationship between Broadway music and popular music over the past one hundred years and identify certain conditions that might make a Broadway song more or less likely to cross over to the pop charts.  From there, it might be possible to make suppositions about the future relationship of these two genres.  Put another way, can the fluid dialogue that once existed between Broadway and popular music ever be restored?

 

It's hard not to think of "Let It Go".  What does the Frozen hit have that modern show tunes lack? Photo courtesy of: Jacob Brent

It’s hard not to think of “Let It Go”. What does the Frozen hit have that modern show tunes lack?
Photo courtesy of: Jacob Brent

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