Neil Patrick Harris. Zachary Quinto. Jesse Tyler Fergusson. Ricky Martin. Andrew Rannells. Jim Parsons. Matt Bomer. Cheyenne Jackson. Gavin Creel. Sean Hayes. Jonathan Groff. T.R. Knight. It seems lately that hardly a month goes by without another movie, TV, or Broadway leading man coming out of the closet—and coming out ahead career-wise, as the abovementioned dozen make perfectly clear.

Still, despite the increasing number of celebrity coming-out stories, there has yet to be a major A-list romantic/action hero movie star we can embrace as “Openly Gay,” someone the stature of a George Clooney or a Jake Gyllenhaal or a Bradley Cooper—to name three totally random examples. Someone like Justin Rush, the fictitious hero of Justin Love, the best new intimate stage musical I’ve seen in years, now getting a spectacular World Premiere at Celebration Theatre under the inspired direction of 4-time Scenie-winning Director Of The Year Michael Matthews.

 Patricia Cotter & David Elzer’s shrewd, savvy book takes its time in introducing us to Justin, however, focusing instead on brand-new Midwest-to-(West) Hollywood transplant Chris Andrews (Tyler Ledon), who arrives in La La Land with dreams of becoming a successful writer and of finding Mr. Right.

The latter proves considerably easier than the former, as within hours it seems, Chris has not only met Donovan (Terrance Spencer) but invited him to share his modest West Hollywood digs. As for Chris’s career dreams, the best he can come up with for now is temping for agent-from-hell Buck Ralston (Alet Taylor), a woman who could offer Amanda Priestly tips on how to browbeat her employees into submission, that is when she’s not firing them left and right.

Chris does, thank goodness, manage to secure a two-week reprieve on the pink slip Buck has promised him. On the home front, however, things prove another matter entirely when our homespun hero discovers boyfriend Donovan’s afternoon delight Syd (Grant Jordan) hiding behind the couch in nothing but a pair of tight, skimpy briefs.

Before long, it’s Three’s Company, West Hollywood-style, with Chris cohabitating with now ex-boyfriend Donovan and Donovan’s twink soul mate Syd. As for the workplace, with everyone else fired, Buck now finds herself relying heavily on do-it-all go-fer Chris, whose latest assignment is to be at Buck’s beck and call at tonight’s latest big Hollywood premiere.

It’s while manning the red carpet that Chris first locks eyes with Justin Rush (Adam Huss), a shared glance that sends a blood rush to our Midwest hero’s heart. Still, what could an infatuation with Justin be other than a waste of time, the handsome action star not only being straight but married to the equally A-list, equally gorgeous Amanda Bell (Carrie St. Louis).

End of story, right?

Wrong, of course, or there wouldn’t be a World Premiere musical called Justin Love.

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in rocket science to figure out that romantic sparks will ignite between Chris and Justin. As for Amanda (who may or may not be aware of her husband’s mostly repressed sexual proclivities), it turns out that hunky paparazzo Mitch Matthews (Ciarán McCarthy) is the once nerdy math geek who had a major crush on her at Downey High, and still does.

Meanwhile, celebrity TV reporters Mary Price (Gina Torrecilla) and Sue What’s-Her-Name (Afton Quast) duke it out for the latest and juiciest Hollywood gossip, and it doesn’t get juicier than when a snapshot pops up on the Internet of Justin Rush in a lip lock with a man whose back Buck immediately recognizes as that of a soon-to-be out-of-work temp named Chris Andrews.

Justin Love scores high marks in every department, beginning with Cotter & Elzer’s book, which knows its Hollywood very well indeed (story by Elzer & Bret Calder). Even more relevant (and plausible) now than when the creative team began work seven years ago, Justin Love manages to create conflict, romance, and dramatic suspense without demonizing even one character. It is, in fact, that musical rarity where we end up liking, and wishing the best for, everyone on stage.

Add to that a dozen and a half songs by composers Lori Scarlett & David Manning and lyricist Scarlett, and flashy, fabulous dance moves choreographed by Janet Roston, fresh from the smash Celebration hit The Color Purple, and you’ve got a textbook example of how to create an intimate stage musical that would be equally at home in a Broadway or off-Broadway setting.

 Several production numbers are particular standouts. There’s “Chasing The Story,” which has reporters, photographers, and celebs doing just that. Another full-cast number, “The Superficial,” celebrates just how deep the Hollywood scene isn’t, a place where “I read your script!” really means “You’re a hack,” and “You must be thrilled!” means “You’re smoking crack.” Best of all may well be “When Your Love Is New,” the Act Two opener fresh out of an animated Disney fairy tale that alone is almost worth the price of admission.

Ballads are equally memorable, highlighted by the romantic “Griffith Observatory” and “The Light I See In You,” and the evening’s most powerful song, “Someone Goes First,” an impassioned, inspirational reminder that there must always be a risk-taking pioneer for progress to be made. (“Someone always goes first. Someone takes it hard. Someone gets it worst. Someone makes the tough choices. Someone goes to bat. Then someone goes next and someone after that.”) Bring Kleenex.

 Casting is every bit as important in a World Premiere musical as book, music, and lyrics, and here too Justin Love has hit the jackpot, its list of performers including four individual Scenie winners (McCarthy for The Wedding Singer & Hello! My Baby, St. Louis for City Of Angels, Taylor for Guys And Dolls, and Torrecilla for The Next Fairy Tale) and another four (Ledon, Leland, Quast, and Spencer) with Ensemble Scenies to their name.

Georgia-born-and-bred Ledon, most recently seen in scruffy, scraggly form in The Robber Bridegroom, cleans up quite niftily to make what is sure to be one of the standout L.A. theater leading man debuts of the year. With a face so fresh he wins our hearts from the get-go and a tenor so gorgeous it could easily move a Broadway audience to cheers, Ledon simply couldn’t be better as our corn-fed hero.

 As for the title role, although Huss’s solid folk-rock pipes don’t match those of his romantic partner, it’s hard to imagine another up-and-coming L.A. actor who could so easily persuade us that he is a Hollywood A-lister with his chiseled features and physique, and darned good acting chops to match.

Recent Trojan grad St. Louis more than fulfills the promise of the four USC musicals I’ve seen her in.  Her Amanda Bell is movie-star stunning, utterly real, and possesses a voice that could easily lead to starring roles for St. Louis on the Great White Way.

Already the winner of two individual Scenies, triple-threat McCarthy once again proves that his stellar L.A. debut as Robbie Hart in The Wedding Singer was no fluke, his Mitch turning out to be so much more than the scoop-hungry paparazzo he might initially seem to be.

 Spencer, recently seen as the haplessly henpecked Harper in The Color Purple, is even more fabulous here as sassy, sexy Donovan, Snowball to Syd’s Twinkie, his partner in scene-stealing played to outrageous, adorable perfection by recent Georgia-to-California transplant Jordan. (The duo get one of the evening’s funniest duets, “Why Am I Not Famous?”, which has them facing the age-old dilemma: “I’ve got the looks, I’ve got the band, I’ve got the best hooks in the land. I’ll never understand, I’ll never know why Justin Bieber is a star and I’m some average fucking Joe.”)

Quast and Torrecilla are so delectably divalicious as Sue and Mary that either could easily segue into the real-life role of entertainment TV reporter should they be offered the right bucks.

Travis Leland as paparazzo Lou and ensemble members Sabrina Miller and Adam Bucci shine again and again in a variety of cameo appearances.

And last but most definitely not least is the one and only Taylor’s colorful, quirky, quicksilver performance as talent vulture Buck, the latest in the series of roles that the powerhouse star has made scene-stealingly her own.

Recent Scenie-winning Musical Director Of The Year Gregory Nabours once again does virtuoso work with a vocally strong cast, in addition to conducing the behind-stage band: Nabours on keyboard, J.J. Brown on bass, Brian Cannady on drums, and David Lee on guitar.

 Scenic designer Stephen Gifford, projection designer Jason H. Thompson, lighting designer Tim Swiss, and sound designer Cricket S. Myers (all of whom have Designer Of The Year Scenies to their name) join forces with costume designer extraordinaire Naila Aladdin Sanders to make Justin Love look and sound sensational, with a special tip of the hat to the way Thompson’s projections (never overpowered by Swiss’s lighting) combine effortlessly with Gifford’s white-paneled set to move us swiftly and smoothly from one Hollywood locale to another. Thumbs up too to Michael O’Hara’s properties design.

Additional creative credits go to orchestrator John Ballinger, assistant directors Ryan Bergmann and June Carryl, assistant choreographer Jackie Hinton, associate lighting designer Zack Lapinski, and assistant projection designer Kaitlyn Pietras.

Marcedes Clanton is stage manager, Rebecca Eisenberg assistant stage manager, Michael Iran Leon dresser, and Matthew Brian Denman technical director.

Completing the production team are Michael C. Kricfalusi (executive director/executive producer), John Michael Beck (artistic director/executive producer), producers David Elzer and Peter Schneider and associate producer Michael Spellman. Casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA.

Having seen and loved Cotter, Scarlett, & Manning’s previous collaboration The Break Up Notebook a grand total of four times back in 2006 and awarded it a Best New Musical Scenie myself, my hopes were high for its follow-up. Still, high as those hopes were, I did not expect to be as thoroughly blown awas as I was by Justin Love. Though a busy review schedule may limit me to a single repeat visit, I most certainly will be back to see it again. Even more than a WOW! review, this is my highest recommendation for a musical that has me as Justin Love with it as I could possibly be.

Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
September 21, 2012
Photos: Michael Lamont

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