STAY ON THE LINE: A Rock Musical

A crisis hotline center serves as the setting for Stay On The Line: A Rock Musical, a revised remounting of a 2001 Cal State Fullerton project and one that works best as a showcase for its phenomenally talented cast of mostly 20something triple threats under the direction of Crystal K. Craft and Scott Mlodzinski.

312373_287069864757257_705376735_n Brian (Jimmy Traum) is the newbie trainee whose nerdy button-down short-sleeve shirt and khaki trousers are but one reason this San Fernando Valley boy seems a fish out of water among his hipper, edgier fellow hotline volunteers.

Heading The Center are Shawna (Stephanie Andersen) and feuding couple Perry (Christopher Maikish) and Veronica (Katy Jacoby), the latter of whom takes one look at Brian and declares, “He’s probably never had a rough day in his life.” Under pressure to sign up new volunteers, Perry makes a deal with Veronica. If the rookie can handle all the pressure of an all-nighter, Veronica will let him train as a volunteer and give her relationship with Perry another chance. If he fails, she’s out the door and he resigns.

385931_287069784757265_1369351569_n And so Brian begins his “24 Hours” (the musical’s original title) answering phone calls with, “The Center. I’m here,” and strict instructions to follow the hotline center’s Number One Rule, “Do not call back. When someone hangs up, it’s not your problem anymore.”

Among Brian’s fellow volunteers are:

• Dani (Jacqueline Real), The Center’s “resident biatch,” who spent her childhood shuttled from foster home to foster home, then turned to drugs, and now finds that the only way to stay clean is by volunteering. Uptight about the prospect of seeing her mother for the first time in five years, Dani finds herself tempted by the continuing allure of her druggie ex-boyfriend Drew (Cy Creamer) and the illegal substances he has to offer.

• Luca (Nick Echols), bro band lead singer wannabe and a self-described “love machine” slash “the next Justin Timberlake,” currently moonlighting as a (straight) go-go boy in Boys Town, West Hollywood, where a night of dancing can easily fill his g-string with $300 in cash. Now if only he can find a fifth “bro” to complete his the band, getting “Traffic Of Love” to the top of the Billboard charts will be child’s play, or so he hopes.


• Jerome (Deosick Burney), a returning Iraq war vet whose Post Traumatic Stress Disorder cost him his sanity and his marriage, now counseling Mike (Eric B. Anthony), a suicidal fellow desert war returnee and PTSD victim on trial for manslaughter, a death considerably closer to home.

541024_287071721423738_762641196_n • Aaron (Stefan Rich), a cute preppy gay boy reading Howard’s End for the fourth time and making a list of as many words as he can think of with “homo” in them. He does this sort of thing while recovering from “conversion therapy” undergone as a teenager which has apparently left him still longing for his first boy-boy kiss at age 22.

The rest of The Center’s volunteers (Anthony, Chelsea Costa, Creamer, Bradley Estrin, Ryan Foy, Catherine Hwang, Daniel R. May, Masaya Palmer, Jennifer Saltiel, and Katherine Washington) make up a storyline-free ensemble whose main purpose is to execute choreographer Desiree Robbins’ energetic dance steps which turn The Center into a series of music video-ready production numbers including “Lucamotion” (which has them gyrating to Luca’s sex-drenched go-go boy moves), and “Aaron’s Lament,” a dream sequence in which Aaron’s every gay boy fantasy comes true.

Completing the Center-based cast is videographer Sally (Kourtney Sontag) who’s interviewing volunteers for a documentary she’s making about life in a suicide hotline center.

Cast members double as callers, both authentic and crank, some phoning in about problems as trivial as a bad hair day, others as a last resort.

One in particular stands out, Katherine (Christopher Callen), a middle-aged divorcee whose conversations with Brian may possibly turn her away from suicidal thoughts exacerbated by three consecutive days of staring at pills and razors and Drano—that is if she’ll keep calling back after each hang-up, since Brian is forbidden by Rule Number One to call her back.

285542_287072398090337_1690926153_n Mlodzinski’s book is a rewrite of Bruce Goodrich’s original, and as the above synopsis might suggest, features more than a few TV movie clichés and a cast of stereotypical characters whose stories often get overpowered by the presence of a dozen-and-a-half performers all onstage at once. Aside from Brian, and to a certain extent Dani, characters’ back stories are sketchy at best, and Luca’s and Aaron’s presence in The Center serves mainly as a pretext for a trio of MTV-style song-and-dance sequences.

Fortunately, with an ensemble as talented as the twenty assembled on the Theatre 68 stage, a rock band as solid as the one led by musical director Wayne Moore, songs that showcase the cast’s bona fide vocal gifts, and choreography that does indeed get the joint jumpin’, Stay On The Line: A Rock Musical ends up an entertaining way to spend a night at the theater, even if the parts don’t add up to a fully satisfying whole.

The creative team struck gold with leading man Traum, utterly authentic as a Brian so sheltered from the harsh realities of life that it’s no wonder no one believes him up to the demands of manning a suicide hotline. Then out comes a crystal-clear singing voice that no math or science nerd could possibly possess and you realize you’re watching a very gifted young actor with pipes to match.

Andersen, Maikish, and Jacoby are terrific too as “the adults,” Andersen’s showstopping “Gone” ending Act One with a bang, while the gut-wrenching “Arrow” reveals that Jacoby is not only one of Theatre 68’s best actresses, she’s also one heck of a singer. A dramatic Act Two scene between Traum and Jacoby gives the production its emotional high point, one that brought tears to this reviewer’s eyes. On the other hand, Perry and Veronica’s relationship drama ends up a script contrivance, despite Maikish’s and Jacoby’s best efforts.

Real and Burney each have solos (“Dani’s Trip” and “Raise The Dead”) that reveal rich, powerful pipes, with Anthony’s heartbreaking “For The Innocent Face” another standout solo. Earlier, Real’s Dani and Traum’s Brian flirt and bond charmingly over “PB&J,” the peanut butter and jelly sandwich his mother has packed for him as a 1950s sitcom mom would.

35452_287071778090399_831763285_n Echols’ 90210-ready looks and physique make him an ideal choice for hotline hottie Luca, while Rich could be equally at home with Kurt and Blaine on Glee, and both exhibit triple-threat talents in their big production numbers.

As for Callen, the multiple-show Broadway vet digs deep into Katherine’s pain, and she and Traum duet “Here And Now” to powerful effect.

The rest of the cast (Costa, Creamer, Estrin, Foy, Hwang, dance captain May, Palmer, Saltiel, Sontag, and dance captain Washington) are mostly around to double the vocal power of ensemble numbers and execute Robbins’ choreography, both of which they do to perfection.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling that Stay On The Line: A Rock Musical would be a stronger piece with a cast half its size, and more depth given to the remaining ten.

Even scaled down, however, one major flaw would remain, particularly as the production is dedicated to the memory of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, who took his life when a case of cyber-bullying made public a same-sex date that was nobody’s business but the two parties involved.

Although a 2011 study published in the journal Pediatrics reveals that “teens who self-identify as homosexual are five times more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to attempt suicide,” Stay On The Line scarcely deals with this reality. Instead, it focuses on Clementi-aged Brian’s attempt to persuade a 50something woman that life is worth living, a major misstep on book writer Mlodzinski’s part and one that significantly reduces Stay On The Line’s relevance to our most at-risk population.

285498_287072448090332_1456267110_n Fortunately, there are the performances and the music to keep audiences applauding, if not cheering, and those include band members Moore on keyboard, Justin Smith on guitar, Steve Bringelson on bass, and Dave Lofti on drums.

Stay On The Line: A Rock Musical has a thoroughly professional look, thanks to Mel Stone’s colorful, trendy costumes, Stephen Lengal’s nicely detailed hotline center set, and Matt Richter’s vivid, impact-boosting lighting. Sound designers Nich Sullivan and Jimmy Chang insure that voices and instruments are expertly mixed.

Musical arrangements are by Moore, and Mercedes and Katey Weibring Finazzo are assistant choreographers.

Stay On The Line: A Rock Musical is produced by Mlodzinski. Derek W. Wan is executive producer, and Ronnie Marmo producer and artistic director of Theatre 68. Samantha Sullivan is co-producer, Janai Mercedes and Jesse Kalusmeier associate producers, and Elizabeth Nordenholt stage manager.

There is quite possibly a great musical to be written about crisis hotline volunteers. Though Stay On The Line: A Rock Musical isn’t that show, it does succeed in entertaining audiences with an eclectic song-and-dance mix, and if nothing else, serves as a launching pad for some very talented young performers you’re likely to be seeing and hearing much more from in coming years.

Theatre 68, 5419 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
March 1, 2013

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