The tale being told may not be “as old as time,” but it’s certainly as old as the recording industry, or so aspiring singer-songwriter Charlie Jane discovers in Breaking Through, a World Premiere musical that, while breaking no new ground storywise, at the very least features a catchy pop-rock score, some exciting choreography, and a bunch of thoroughly winning performances.
Charlie (Alison Luff) has arrived in L.A. with a dream—and a hope that at the very least, a family-ish connection with Solo Records executive Amanda (Nita Whitaker) will get her demo CD heard.
It turns out that the record label exec was best friends with Charlie’s long-departed mom Charlotte, a pop star who like so many before her saw her career destroyed by alcoholism and drug abuse. Not that Amanda seems any more inclined to pay Charlie heed than the other label bigwigs who’ve been sent her demo.
Fortunately, our heroine is not one to give up easily, her determination and powers of persuasion persuading Amanda to give the aspiring artist a chance by teaming her with pop star Scorpio (Matt Magnusson), whose post-boy band solo career could use a jolt.
Solo Records CEO Jed Barnes (Robert W. Arbogast) sees enough potential in the pop star-gorgeous Charlie to give her a starter record deal, but on one condition—that she sing only the surefire prefab hits he’s picked out for her.
Stardom does indeed ensue, but along with it comes frustration that Charlie Jane (redubbed Charlie Slate) is singing someone else’s music and not her own.
Lending Charlie advice and moral support along the way is her best friend Gwyn (Teya Patt), who could use some of that herself given her romantic/sexual involvement with her married-with-kids boss, a closeted lipstick lesbian named Liz (Katherine Tokarz).
Smith (Will Collyer), the label’s boy-next-door craft services guy who dreams of being a successful publicist, quickly befriends Charlie, then becomes her boyfriend, though their relationship fizzles when Jed insists that his latest pop star “fake-date” Scorpio, and what’s a girl to say when her career is at stake?
Completing Breaking Through’s cast of characters is fading pop diva Karina Du Soleil (Kacee Clanton), whose current Grammy nomination could lead to either a revitalized career should she win or being dropped by her label if she should lose.
Since there’s nothing even the slightest bit unpredictable about Breaking Through’s plot, it’s hardly a spoiler to suggest that Charlie, in the make-it-or-break-it solo concert that is the musical’s grand finale, might just veer from her usual written-by-others song set to _____. (You fill in the blank.)
Kirsten Guenther’s book has the ring of someone who has been there, done that. Still, I can’t help wondering (given the success of songwriting pop superstars alike Ke$ha, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Adele, Sia, and Lady Gaga) why a 2015 record exec wouldn’t give Charlie at least one track of her own on her debut CD.
In any case, it’s not because Breaking Through has a brand new story to tell that it ends up an audience-involving crowd-pleaser on the Pasadena Playhouse stage.
Cliff Downs and Katie Kahanovitz have written twenty or so tuneful pop songs, some of them Charlie’s autobiographical compositions, others of them story-propelling tunes in a musical theater tradition that goes all the way back to Oklahoma! (if not before), and still others cleverly written to mimic the kind of mindless fluff that’s gotten radio play for as long as there have been radios.
Tyce Diorio has choreographed one high-energy music-video-ready dance number after another, executed by a sensational, ethnically diverse ensemble (Fatima El-Bashir, Jessica Jaunich, Christopher Marcos, Dominic Pierson, Andrew Pirozzi, Terrance Spencer, Laura L. Thomas, Tokarz, and Samantha Zack at the performance reviewed), all of whom get to play cameo roles along the way.
Above all, if Breaking Through succeeds as well as it does, it is thanks to its principal players, who (under Sheldon Epps’ incisive direction) do subtly shaded work even when Guenther’s book paints them in broad strokes, though Guenther does deserve a big round of applause for writing a female character-propelled, woman-empowering story (and for giving the age-old illicit boss-employee relationship a fresh new lesbian twist).
Young Broadway vet Luff, who I’m told is the cast’s sole non-L.A.-based performer, more than justifies the extra expense of her out-of-town casting. Not only does the girl-next-door beautiful Luff have you loving Charlie from the moment she first takes centerstage, she sings like a superstar, strums the guitar with the best of them, and invests Charlie with passion and depth.
Last minute cast addition Magnusson proves the absolute perfect choice to play Scorpio, and though it’s the busy L.A. triple-threat’s chiseled cheekbones, pecs, and abs that are likely to have audience members panting, it’s the heart and soul and genuine goodness beneath them (in addition to some rock-star vocals) that make Magnusson’s performance one to remember.
As for Scorpio’s romantic-triangle rival Smith, it’s hard to imagine anyone better suited for the role than Collyer, whose program bio only begins to list the couple-dozen shows that have been blessed by the acting gifts, stellar pipes, and all-American likeability of the multitalented UCLA grad.
The divine Patt continues to impress, this time as a young woman in need of a self-esteem injection. Whitaker adds shadings to a character who in lesser hands might just be your average everyday ice-in-her-veins record exec. Clanton’s down-on-her-luck Karina is another winner, and it’s a treat to hear the rock vocalist’s own voice after years of standing in for Janis J. (In fact, all three ladies have vocal chops in abundance.)
Arbogast and Tokarz’s characters have less to do, but what they do they do very well. (His hard-as-nails Jed and her hard-as-nails Liz would make for a match made in hell if only she weren’t already married to a man … and gay.)
Breaking Through benefits enormously from the contributions of David O, who not only gets deserved credit for his music supervision and arrangements but conducts and plays keyboards in the show’s rocktastic band, completed by Steven Gregory, Andrew Synowiec, John Gentry Tennyson, Ernest Tibbs, and Dave Zarlenga.
I love the sleek look that scenic designer John Iacovelli has given Breaking Through, with Kaitlyn Pietras’s splendid projections aiding him every step of the way, whether taking us from recording studio to the surrounding countryside or flashing Charlie and Scorpio’s latest publicity shots. Alex Jaeger’s terrific costumes range from character/job-defining outfits to flashy pop star garb. And none of the above would look nearly as stunning without Jared A. Sayeg’s gorgeous, ever-morphing lighting design, with Peter Fitzgerald’s pitch-perfect sound mix and Rheanne Garcia’s glamorous hair and makeup completing a Broadway-caliber production design.
Los Angeles casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA, with New York casting support from Laura Stanczyk Casting, CSA. Hethyr “Red” Verheof is production stage manager/production manager and Julie Ann Renfro assistant stage manager. Joe Witt is general manager and Brad Enlow technical director. Reed Kelly is dance captain.
Considering how quickly all but the most extraordinary (and extraordinarily lucky) musicals crash and burn on Broadway, I’m a bit skeptical about Breaking Through’s potential for breaking through to hit status on the Great White Way.
At the very least, however, it offers Pasadena Playhouse ticket holders characters to care about, songs and dances to hum and tap along to, and a behind-the-scenes look at the recording industry that makes for an entertaining place to visit—if not precisely one you’d like to call home.
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
November 2, 2015
Photos: Jim Cox