If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to witness the coming together—and ultimate breakup—of a superstar rock band like, say, Fleetwood Mac, you won’t want to miss The Existents, the new rock musical by Ty Taylor, Douglas Crawford, and Jason Wooten.  

The Existents kicks off Open Fist Theatre Company’s eight-week-long First Look Festival in work-in-progress form, but thanks to Martha Demson’s savvy direction, standout performances by a sensational cast, and a dozen and a half catchy, hummable rock songs (music and lyrics by Taylor), the result is a thoroughly professional and highly entertaining evening of music theater.

The show starts out with the first meeting of soon-to-be band founders Orion and Travis (Taylor and Jason Paige) at a bar called Serendipity. Bartender Travis is studying for a test on Existentialist authors Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus when Orion surprises him with a quote from Sartre and recognizes in the college student a true Renaissance Man.  Musician, philosopher, bartender, and student of philosophy and music—a major sure to lead a life of unemployment—this math geek turned musician bonds with Orion the second he hears the Existentialist songwriter’s “Who We Are,” a tune which asks the musical question, “How are we who we are?” 

Overnight, the two become friends, roommates, and bandmates, and when sexy drummer Ella (Laura Jane) joins the band, both Orion and Travis find their hearts set aflame. Soon, bassist Boone (Derek Manson), Ella’s former bandmate from Premature Ejaculation, has made the trio a quartet, followed by Orion’s sister Sheila (Maia Madison) and her best friend Pam (Anjali Bhimani) as vocalists.  When it turns out that Pam’s boyfriend Sky (Chase Matthews) plays guitar (“Everyone’s boyfriend plays guitar”), the group is complete.  “I think we just found our existence,” quips one of them, and the band gets its name, one which will soon become a household word.


Before long, The Existents’ growing love for each other begins fueling their songs (and vice versa), Travis drops out of school (“School will always be there but this moment is only now”), and the rock musicians discover the truth in Mother Teresa’s words—“I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.”  The band hits Number One on the charts, stages sold-out concerts, and makes the cover of Rolling Stone.

It doesn’t take long for fissures to begin to form.  A romantic triangle between Orion, Travis, and Ella along with Sky’s drug relapse plant the seeds of the band’s eventual breakup. But that’s only Act One, with still one more act to go.

The Existents’ book (by Crawford, Taylor, and Wooten) creates eight believable, sympathetic characters fleshed out by the cast’s excellent performances. Still, it’s Taylor’s songs, ranging from upbeat rock to emotional ballads that catch fire, with hooks that inspire audience lipsync-alongs from the first listening.  A cast recording is in the works, news that is likely to spark interest in The Existents, both the group and the show.

The cast assembled by Open Fist will be hard for future productions to beat. Quadruple (or should that be quintuple?)-threat Taylor has never been better, or more dynamic, than he is here in the role of Orion. Paige makes a newsworthy return to Open Fist, bringing the same quirky, one-of-a-kind appeal to Travis that he did to Joe in Joe’s Garage—and a great high rock belt to his vocals. Matthews combines GQ cover looks with bona fide rock chops in the role of Sky, and Manson brings a goofy charm to Boone (and ditto on the rock chops).  The gorgeous Jane’s experience as both a musical theater performer and backup singer serves her in excellent stead as Ella.  Broadway vet Bhimani gives Pam one of the richest and most powerful voices you’re likely to hear any time soon, particularly in her solo ballad “Stone Cold Sober.”  Madison completes The Existents with a blend of tough girl sass and emotional depth.

The male cast members all play their own instruments, backed by a sensational four-piece band—Farmer Greif on keyboard, Ken Rosser on guitar, Rick Barrio Dill on bass, and tiptop musical director Chris Wabich on drums.

Scenic designer James Spencer’s set has a great rock concert feel, morphing easily into various locales. has created terrific projections and graphics, giving the production an appropriately multimedia look.  Equally excellent are Dan Reed’s lighting design, Peter Carlstedt’s sound design and live mix, Anastacia Shepherd’s motion graphics, and Teresa Willis’ props.  Christina Wright’s costumes suit the characters to a T, though occasional costume changes would be nice. Bjørn Johnson has choreographed realistic-looking fights between bandmates. (What band hasn’t had its scuffles?)

Ben Caron is assistant director, Mark Wilson stage manager, and Robyn Guillory assistant stage manager. The Existents is produced by Charles Otte and Martha Demson, with Paige, Scott Paulin, and Ina Russell assistant producers.

There are a lot of existentialist quotes projected between scenes, and some dialog referencing them. I have to confess to all this having pretty much gone over my head—though at no harm to my enjoyment of the production.  The Existents looks to be the centerpiece hit of the First Look Festival in what is sure to be only the first of many incarnations. Rock fans will have a terrific time from start to finish.

Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
July 30, 2010
                                                                 Photos: Alysa Brennan

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