Musical group therapy might not be an effective way for people to work on their psychological problems and personal issues. There might not even be such a thing for that matter, or at least not as Adam Emperor Southard imagines it in Group: A Musical. One thing is certain, however. Musical group therapy is one terrific idea for a show, and Southard’s very first musical makes for one terrific evening of theater. As produced by the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble, Group: A Musical starts out promising, keeps getting better, and by the end of its second act, has earned every decibel of the audience cheers which erupted at Opening Night curtain calls.


Our musical guide, and the group’s leader, is Dr. Allen (Isaac Wade), a university professor and counselor facing a life crisis, one which prompts him to tape record his memories of the now defunct musical therapy group for the benefit of a listener whose identity we don’t learn until the very end of the evening’s journey.

“The hardest six months of my life,” is how Dr. Allen describes the experience, but theatergoers need not fear two hours of nonstop angst. In fact, like A Chorus Line (minus the dancing), Group: A Musical inspires equal parts joy and laughter amidst the personal revelations and tears, and its songs by Southard (with arrangements and additional music by Josh Allan Dykstra) announce the arrival of a composer/lyricist with a gift for tuneful melodies and clever, natural rhymes.

Dr. Allen worries at first that no one will show up, though he hopes the offer of free coffee will at least provide an incentive, that and the fact that the six who signed up for group therapy have no idea it’s going to come in musical form. They arrive soon enough, however, and once they’re all seated, Dr. Allen announces his credo: “I believe in two things. The strength of a community. The power of music.” Before you know it, he’s got all six raising their voices in song, accompanied by the three-piece band Dr. Allen has on hand to provide backup for his amateur vocalists. In fact, by the end of “The Exercise,” all six are joining voices, first in counterpoint, then in perfect harmony. (Actually, the perfect harmony turns out to be only Dr. Allen’s rose-colored recollection, the real thing having sounded “like a train wreck,” but hey, this is a memory musical after all.)

First to vocalize is Paul (Michael Hanson), a likeable sort whose boy-next-door good looks haven’t done him much good in the romance department. “I haven’t had a second date in like forever,” he reveals in “Purity.” Poor Paul has yet to figure out a more successful way to talk to a girl than spouting clichés, nor has he determined how not to fall in love at first sight and then go and confess his love at the end of every first date.

Julia (Melissa Collins) dresses punk, gives attitude (“Do I look acoustic?” she asks the band when they start off her “Take A Ride” unplugged), and keeps her own dark secret hidden deep until way into the second act.

Chris (Evan Martin) announces almost right away that he’s gay, news which comes as a surprise to no one in the group, despite his beefy 6’4” football player build, then goes on to explain his awkward family situation in “Good Enough.” Despite all of Chris’s efforts to make his dad proud of him, he has never been able to satisfy the man, and as for coming out to him, “I would break his heart by showing him mine.”

When Dr. Allen asks if anyone in the group has been in a relationship that seemed like it was going nowhere, all eyes turn to bickering Phillip (Trevor Algatt) and Meg (Caroline Sharp), married six years and suffering from a failure to communicate. “We are here because you are lonely and pathetic,” Phillip tells his wife, who has her own ax to pick with Phil. Not only does Meg resent having to move for his job, she still can’t forgive him for not having attended her mother’s funeral. Phillip has a good deal to say about that—and about what Meg’s been doing behind his back.

Finally there’s Liz (Brooke Baldwin), a perky young woman who seems only to attract the kind of men who want to move back in with their mothers and live down in the basement, a problem that shrinks compared to her much bigger one. Liz has a ticking clock, an hourglass, an “Expiration Date,” she reveals, and though she got her cancer diagnosis early, and despite the fight she’s determined to put up, her future looks grim. Still, the last thing Liz wants is a depressing Big C support group. What she’s come to work on are relationships and feelings, and where better to do that than here?

Admittedly, each of Group: A Musical’s seven characters is someone whose story we’ve seen before, whether on stage or on the big screen or on a day-or-nighttime soap. Still, they have never been seen in this particular musical context, and to his great credit, Southard avoids tying up every single story with a happy ending. Still, by time Dr. Allen and his group sing the show’s closing number, “Inner Peace,” these strangers have become friends—as well as people the audience has come to know and to care about.

Group: A Musical’s central conceit (that its characters know that they are singing) is an inspired one, a concept that distinguishes it from the more mundane show it would have been had they simply burst into song Oklahoma!-style. It’s fun to see the group members’ reactions to the outstanding onstage band (musical director Southard, Dykstra, and James Mueller) and the band’s reactions to The Group. Characters sometimes look back at the musicians as if to say, “Hey, I’m about to start singing, so start playing.” For variety’s sake, not every “confession” is sung, however, and in one of Group: A Musical’s most powerful scenes, Dr. Allen dismisses the band for a serious man-to-man with Phillip.

Directed with empathy and flair by Richard Tatum, Group: A Musical features a crackerjack cast of young actors-who-sing (in some cases, quite well indeed). Baldwin and Hanson have great romantic chemistry together, creating a couple whose bond only deepens as Liz’s condition worsens. Sharp and Algatt are equally believable as a couple not quite out of love with each other, Algatt’s dramatic scene opposite Wade an Act Two standout. Collins and Martin dig deep beneath their character’s gay boy, bad girl exteriors, as well as being absolutely believable as bffs. (Watch how Chris plays with Julia’s hair as if to braid it.) Finally, the always brilliant Wade reveals a deeper, subtler side to his quirky stage self, and the finest singing voice of the bunch.

Though there aren’t any dance numbers per se, Doug Oliphant gets thumbs up for his animated movement and choreography. James W. Sudik’s scenic design nicely replicates the kind of activities room where a group therapy session might take place, and is effectively lit by Sasha A Venola. Danika Sudik’s excellent costumes tell us much about the people wearing them. Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design insures that the band never overpowers the unmiked singers. Liana Dillaway is stage manager, Danielle Lynnae Burrie assistant stage manager. Group: A Musical is based on an original concept by Southard and Scott D. Southard.

A lackluster PR blurb and rather dour black-and-white photo logo did not prepare this reviewer or his guest for the funny, engaging, tuneful, exhilarating, bright, emotionally resonant musical Group is. If there is justice in the highly competitive world of musical theater, Group: A Musical should put rookie creator Southard’s name on the musical theater map. It is yet another feather in the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble’s already multi-feathered cap.

Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble, The Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd Street, Santa Monica.
–Steven Stanley
January 13, 2011

June 2011 update: Group: A Musical has returned for three performances only at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, subtly tweaked to make it even more powerful than at its January World Premiere, even as performed virtually set-free (per Fringe requirements). Easily one of the best new musicals of the past year.

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