The voices inside a neurotic computer whiz’s head take on decidedly human form in the latest from the La Jolla Playhouse, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s tuneful if overly ambitious musical romcom Up Here, a show that earns high points for the Oscar-winning couple’s score (and the talents who bring its World Premiere to life in La Jolla) but could prove too Out There for future mainstream success.
The show’s conceit is both simple and inspired.
Whenever thoughts spring into computer repairman Dan’s (Matt Bittner) overactive brain, they come to life via “inner voices” Cool Guy and Cool Girl (the too-cool-for-school Andrew Call and Gizel Jimenez), Critic (a snootily foppish Jeff Hiller), Mr. Can-Do (an ever-optimist Devin Ratray in lumberjack gear), and Humbug (a sassily sarcastic Devere Rogers) whose character names reveal their influence on Dan’s psyche, whether positive, negative, or somewhere in between. (Who among us can’t relate to voices telling us that we can—or more often can’t—do what we set out to do?)
Up Here introduces these figments of Dan’s neuroses in a meet cute any movie romcom would be proud to call its own.
T-shirt designer Lindsay (Betsy Wolfe) has summoned Dan to her apartment to fix her crashed computer, which he promptly does, and though the blonde beauty would seem to be out of the unkempt if not unattractive schlump’s league, the twosome end up making a tapas-and-wine date for the following evening, largely through Lindsay’s powers of persuasion.
Also introduced are Lindsay’s handsome but crass ex Ed (Nick Verina), her on-the-autism-spectrum brother Tim (Eric Petersen), and Tim’s Best Buy boss Tina (Zonya Love), who has fired Tim for telling one too many customers that “There’s no such thing as ‘one,’” yet finds herself oddly attracted to filterless Tim.
Oh, and popping up every now and then is a nine-year-old Dan-lookalike (Giovanni Cozic as Child), who theorizes about the origin of the universe and the reasons for the existence of a great big rock that occasionally takes its position centerstage.
Throughout Dan and Lindsay’s romantic journey, the La Jolla Playhouse stage is filled with a dozen-and-a-half absolutely fabulous triple-threats, each with his or her own two cents to insert into Dan’s overactive brain.
Anderson-Lopez and Lopez have been working on Up Here’s book, music, and lyrics for the past ten years in between projects (his Broadway smashes Avenue Q and The Book Of Mormon, her off-Broadway hit In Transit, and their Oscar-winning Disney blockbuster Frozen), and though their decade of creative labor shows, Up Here also reveals the pitfalls inherent in creating a musical as personal as this one, especially when its creators’ songwriting gifts seem to exceed their book-writing talents. (That no song list has been inserted in the program is an inexcusable omission that ought to be immediately rectified.)
The outside voice of director Alex Timbers (whose brilliant work SoCal theatergoers have seen in the National Tour of Peter And The Starcatcher and The Old Globe’s The Last Goodbye) has doubtless helped fine-tune Up There during the rehearsal/preview process, but without additional tough-but-needed pruning, I don’t expect we’ll be hearing much of Up Here after La Jolla.
The Lopezs’ musical works best when zeroing in on Dan, Lindsay, and Dan’s inner voices. It loses focus in B-plot characters Tim and Tina, especially since Dan’s “There’s no such thing as ‘one’” never gets the “Now I get it!” payoff we’re expecting.
Up Here loses even more steam whenever Child pops up with one of his musings, Cozic’s undeniable cuteness aside.
As for a sequence that has both Dan and Lindsay mid-therapy session going on the Dan attack with an unsuspecting female audience member called up to play victim Dan, the scene is alternately awkward and amusing, potentially disastrous, and might do with some rethinking.
More radically, I can’t help feeling that an intermissionless 90-minute Up Here without its subsidiary Tim-&-Tina romance and Child’s scientific theorizing would make for a much stronger show.
And while cuts are being made, how about excising the kind of profanity (profusions of F-word variations and even a reference to asshole bleaching) that works in The Book Of Mormon but not so well here.
Still, even as is, there are multiple reasons to give Up Here a look-see, first and foremost among them its stellar pair of lead performances by the incandescent Wolfe and the oh-so-likeable Bittner, both of whom bring terrific voices and acting chops (and some Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan chemistry) to their roles.
Call, Hiller (who also plays Frederick), Jimenez, Ratray (who also plays Calvert), and Rogers are simply too too divine as the voices inside Dan’s head, while Love (who also plays She Monster), Petersen (who also plays Dog), and Verina (who also plays Dog) add dimensions to their human characters, and though I have dared to suggest leaving Child on the cutting-room floor along with Tim and Tina, it’s through no fault of the utterly winning Cozic.
As for Kikau Alvaro (Captain Of The Guard), N’Jameh Camara (Galaxy), Mary Glen Frederick (Galaxy), Jacob Haren (Bnok), Zakiyah Markland (Lindsay’s Shrink, Erika), Lorena Martinez (Kimberly), Sarah Meahl (Lindsay Two, Jen), Tamara Rodriguez (Mehl, Roller Coaster, Girl), Charles South (Haka), and Graham Stevens (Dan’s Shrink, Dog), song-and-dance ensembles don’t get any more triple-threat-tasic than this one (and La Jolla Playhouse deserves major snaps for adding so many San Diego locals to the mix, including swings Hanz Enyeart and April Jo Henry).
Joshua Bergasse’s choreography is simply sensational—and sensationally performed. Music director Aron Accurso (who also composed incidental music) conducts the production’s Broadway-caliber pit orchestra to Dave Metzger’s orchestrations, which sound great mixed with cast vocals (vocal arrangements by Lopez) thanks to Peter Hylenski’s pitch-perfect sound design.
Scenic designer David Korins gives Up Here an appropriately fanciful, quirky look that takes on myriad hues thanks to David J. Weiner’s saturated lighting design with Dan Scully’s projection designs adding to the visual pizzazz. Michelle Zamora’s puppets, whether Avenue Q-size (Dan’s parents) or humungous (an imposing She Monster) are imaginative treats as well.
Most exciting of all are the deliciously fanciful outfits Ann Closs-Farley has confectioned for Up Here’s dancing cacti, pooches, Maori warriors, and assorted lifesize action figures. (Her character-driven outfits for Dan, Lindsay, and other real-life characters are terrific too, as are Lisa Chan-Wylie’s colorful wigs.)
Gabriel Greene is dramaturg. George Yé is fight director. Matthew DiCarlo is production stage manager and Rachel Bauder and Shawn Pennington are assistant stage managers. Audrey Hoo is production manager. Casting is by Carrie Gardner, C.S.A., with local casting by Teresa Sapien.
Though I didn’t fall in love with Up Here as I had hoped to (and the only semi-standing ovation that greeted curtain calls suggests that I was not alone), there is still much to recommend in Anderson-Lopez and Lopez’s admittedly very personal creation.
If the Lopezes have the guts to make some painful cuts, Up Here might just have a future Out There beyond La Jolla.
La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla.
August 11, 2015
Photos Matthew Murphy