When you think about history-making 20th-century African-American music impresarios, Berry Gordy and Quincy Jones and perhaps two or three other names probably top the list. A less likely name to spring to mind is that of John Grayton Dolphin, an omission that Recorded In Hollywood: The (World Premiere) Musical sets out to rectify … and does so so crowd-pleasingly under Denise Dowse’s pizzazzy direction that it could easily end up giving the Broadway smash Memphis a run for its money.
Like that 2010 Best Musical Tony winner, Recorded In Hollywood: The Musical recounts the true story of a man who helped break the 1950s Top 40 color barrier that kept black singers off white radio stations across the land. Unlike Memphis, however, its real-life protagonist is, as were the artists he helped to achieve mainstream success, African-American. In addition, the musical that tells his life story takes place, not in the American South, but in L.A.’s very own South Central.
Based on the 2011 biography Recorded in Hollywood: The John Dolphin Story, written by none other than Dolphin’s grandson Jamelle Dolphin himself, Recorded In Hollywood: The Musical (book by Matt Donnelly and Dolphin) introduces us to the Oklahoma native turned adopted Angelino whose record store Dolphin’s Of Hollywood quickly became a household name in South Central and beyond.
Segregation may not have been the law in mid-20th-century L.A. as it was in Memphis, but Recorded In Hollywood: The Musical makes it abundantly clear from the get-go that integration remained nothing more than a dream for those like John Dolphin who dared imagine a racism-free world.
In fact, if Dolphin’s Of Hollywood was located, not on Sunset and Vine but on Vernon and Central, it was not through any choice of its owner but by de facto covenants that prevented John from buying or renting in white neighborhoods, regardless of ample cash in hand.
Innovative as all-get out, John Dolphin kept Dolphin’s Of Hollywood open 24 hours a day, hired a white DJ (Dick “Huggy Boy” Hugg) to spin discs in his store, and attracted a clientele whose groundbreaking racial diversity soon raised the ire of local law enforcement officers who made it their business to shut it down.
It only took two years from Dolphin’s Of Hollywood’s 1948 debut for John to start his first record label and begin recording hits like Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” and “Having A Party,” The Penguins’ “Earth Angel,” and The Hollywood Flames’ “Wheel Of Fortune,” all of them featured in Recorded In Hollywood: The Musical, and before long John Dolphin was a name to be reckoned with in American rock ‘n’ roll.
It takes only seconds into the show’s opening number, “Ain’t We Havin’ Fun,” to rest assured that this World Premiere will do anything but fizzle. Not only does this first of Andy Cooper’s sixteen original songs sizzle, revealing a gifted composer-lyricist with another fifteen sing-along tunes up his sleeve, Cassie Crump’s thrillingly Hi-NRG choreography performed by a dozen-and-a-half sensational young triple-threats promises—and delivers—great things ahead.
Donnelly and Dolphin’s book could use some refining. Dialog can ring a tad too “bio-pic” at times, and I’d suggest cutting any lines foreshadowing its climactic one-on-one, letting the audience come to their own conclusions rather than “helping them along.” In addition, having very young-looking actors play both police chief and fire marshal is a bit of a credibility stretch. Finally, for whatever reason, the reprise of “Don’t Stop Now” doesn’t have the gut-wrenching impact that it ought to.
Without the plan (which AEA seems bent on eliminating, damn the consequences to L.A. theater), producers could likely never have assembled the production’s stupendous nineteen-member ensemble, four of them Equity members, including the musical’s electrifying star Stu James, pitch-perfection as the big-dreaming, go-getting, ground-breaking, occasionally two-timing entrepreneur-husband-father that was John Dolphin, and the equally terrific Eric B. Anthony as Dolphin’s employee (and would-be soul idol) Percy Ivy, whose dreams of stardom were as deluded as his voice was unimpressive.
Supporting performances are every bit as fabulous, from the stunning Jade Johnson as John’s wife Ruth to the infectiously likeable Nic Olsen as Huggy to the charismatic John Devereaux as Jesse to the dynamic Rahsaan Patterson as Los Angeles Sentinel founding publisher Leon Washington, whose paper helped spread word about John Dolphin and Dolphin’s Of Hollywood. As for Godfrey Moyes’ handsome, silky-voiced Sam Cooke, the 1950s superstar is in expert hands indeed.
Franklin Grace, Nic Hodges, and Matthew Sims, Jr. do bang-up work as assorted Dolphin’s customers and employees and as the Hollywood Flames. They are matched by Brooke Brewer, Jenna Gillespie, Sha’Leah Nikole Stubblefield, and Katherine Washington as (among others) Ruth’s sisters and the recording group The Coopers, and by Richie Ferris, Philip Dean Lightstone, Jake Novak, and James Simenc as white guys both good and bad. (The latter foursome’s “California” is a terrifically written and delightfully performed albeit totally anachronistic takeoff on just about any 1960s Beach Boys’ tune you’ve ever heard.)
Musical director/score arranger Stephan Terry merits highest marks as does Recorded In Hollywood: The Musical’s phenomenal live band: Terry on keys, Bob Fazio on electric bass, Michael Wells on guitar, and Archie Wilson on drums.
Scenic designer Joel Daavid’s ingenious set takes us relatively quickly from locale to locale, with Troy Hauschild’s excellent projection design helping to set the historical, geographical scene. Christina Schwinn’s lighting design is every bit as professional as any you’d seen in a big-stage production, and sound engineer Norman Kern’s mix went off almost without a hitch at the performance reviewed.
Best of all among design elements are Mylette Nora’s superb period costumes, with special snaps for John Dolphin’s flashy suits. Aishah Williams’ hair and wig design is topnotch as well, and hopefully a larger future budget will allow female ensemble members the variety of wigs their multiple tracks cry out for.
Michele Cole and April Thomas are assistant choreographers.
Ronn Goswick is production stage manager and Natalya Zernitskaya assistant stage manager. Recorded In Hollywood: The Musical is produced by Racquel Lehrman of Theatre Planners. Victoria Watson is associate producer. Casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA.
Were it not for John Dolphin and Dolphin’s Of Hollywood, African-American artists like Sam Cook, the Penguins, and others might never have heard their recordings played on mainstream, i.e. white radio stations, years before Motown, Atlantic, and Stax made mainstream stars of Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Diana Ross And The Supremes, Aretha Franklin, and Al Green.
Recorded In Hollywood: The Musical not only gives John Dolphin the credit he deserves, it does so in such a sensationally entertaining way that big things surely lie ahead. In the meantime, snap up your tickets fast because this is sure to be one red-hot ticket indeed.
Lillian Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.
April 12, 2015
Photos: Ed Krieger