Last year’s 99-seat World Premiere musical smash Recorded In Hollywood has returned big time as a Kirk Douglas Theatre guest production in a much retooled upscale transfer that promises even greater things ahead for the crowd-pleasing, get-up-and-dance Memphis/Motown-style tribute to 1950s/60s African-American R&B groundbreaker John Dolphin.
Based on the 2011 biography Recorded in Hollywood: The John Dolphin Story, written by Dolphin’s grandson Jamelle, Recorded In Hollywood introduces us to the adopted Angelino whose record store Dolphin’s Of Hollywood was actually located miles away from Tinseltown on Vernon and Central, and 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.
The oh-so innovative Dolphin kept his record store 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 opening for John to start his first record label and begin recording hits like Sam Cooke’s “I’ll Come Running Back To You,” The Penguins’ “Earth Angel,” and The Hollywood Flames’ “Wheel Of Fortune,” all of them featured in Recorded In Hollywood, and before long John Dolphin had helped break the 1950s Top-40 color barrier that kept black singers off white radio stations not just in the deep south, but right here in L.A.
The show-opening sizzler “Ain’t We Havin’ Fun” is but the first of over a dozen catchy Andy Cooper songs that (alongside covers of “Lovin’ John,” “Sixty-Minute Man,” and more) provide ample opportunity for Recorded In Hollywood’s sensational cast of twenty-one to dazzle even as John’s story engrosses and informs in equal measure.
Co-writers Matt Donnelly and Jamelle Dolphin deserve major kudos for fixing Recorded In Hollywood’s 2015 World Premiere flaws. The duo’s much richer book eliminates bio-pic clichés, lets plot twists happen unexpectedly, excises a few characters too advanced in years for a very young cast to play credibly, makes a couple of white police officers a menacing presence throughout, and perhaps most importantly, allows us to see John Dolphin the man, the entrepreneur, the advocate, warts and all.
Under Denise Dowse’s once more pizzazzy direction, a supremely talented Stu James has us yet again in the palm of his hand as the big-dreaming, go-getting, ground-breaking, occasionally two-timing John, and he is given splendid support by fellow cast returnee Eric B. Anthony’s infectiously winning take on the not-so-gifted would-be soul idol/Dolphin’s employee Percy Ivy and by an exquisite Jenna Gillespie as John’s loving but patience-tried wife Ruth, the UCI grad graduating from 2015 ensemble to the star vehicle she so richly deserves.
Matt Magnusson makes for a sweet, sexy, huggable Huggy, Frank Lawson’s delivers a spirited turn as Los Angeles Sentinel founding publisher Leon Washington, and R&B stars Sam Cooke and Jesse Belvin, both of whose lives ended up cut tragically short, are brought back to charismatic, velvet-voiced life by Thomas Hobson and Wilkie Fergusson III.
Ensemble members Ashley Lynette Brown, Caitlin Gallogly, Franklin Grace, Gabi Hankins, Dylan Hoffinger, Alfred Jackson, Bren Thor Johnson, Joël René, Matthew Sims Jr., Sha’leah Nikole Stubblefield, Katherine Washington, and Emily Zetterberg are triple-threat knock-outs executing Cassie Crump’s thrillingly Hi-NRG choreography in assorted cameo roles.
As for Ryan Murray and Tyler Ruebensaal, if the equally talented gents must spend most of their time threatening John Dolphin’s livelihood as a pair of not-so-nice LAPD cops (the kind that have sadly been making the nightly news again these days), they too get to sing and dance as the Beach Boys-esque “The Longboards.”
Recorded In Hollywood looks sensational on the Kirk Douglas stage thanks to scenic designer Bruce Goodrich’s snazzy set (the oil well silhouettes are a particularly nice touch), Lap Chi Chu’s electrifying lighting, Mylette Nora’s hundreds of period costume stunners, and Aishah Williams’s terrific hair and wig design, and it sounds just as fabulous thanks to Diablo Sound, with musical director Abdul Hamid Royal conducting and playing keyboards in the show’s rip-roaring live onstage band—Vanessa Brown, Darrell Crooks, Ian Martin, Land Richards, and John Gentry Tennyson. (Additional music credits go to Kevin Toney and Andrae Alexander for their arrangements and John Gentry Tennyson for his orchestrations and additional arrangements.)
John Dolphin may not have the household-name status of Barry Gordy, Quincy Jones, or Ahmet Ertegun, but without his pioneering efforts, it might have taken a whole lot longer for Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Diana Ross And The Supremes, Aretha Franklin, and Al Green to hear their records played on mainstream radio.
I predicted big things ahead for Recorded In Hollywood when it debuted at the Lillian last year. Polished to new brilliance, it turns that prediction into reality, and makes the Kirk Douglas Theatre the place to be for the summer’s rockingest musical hit.
Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City.
July 16, 2106
Photos: Ed Krieger