A stellar Marc Ginsburg and more than a dozen unsung Sherman Brothers songs are the best reasons to catch the World Premiere of the old-and-new Levi! A New Musical, the latest from the students of LACC’s Theatre Academy.

Ginsburg, the cast’s sole seasoned pro, stars as Levi Strauss, a name immediately recognizable from the jeans the world has been wearing for the past hundred-fifty years, but whose life story has so far remained largely untold, or at least on the musical theater stage.

We first meet eighteen-year-old Levi aboard the ocean vessel transporting him, along with other European immigrants, to Ellis Island circa 1847, and though America seems ill-inclined to offer an open-armed welcome, at least there is opportunity (if not the “streets paved with gold” his relatives have promised), and soon enough tailor Levi is fending off a curvy hooker as he peddles women’s wear for the Strauss family business on the streets of New York.

Then gold is discovered out California way, and Levi is sent west to expand sales, six months aboard ship during which he meets and falls head over heels for the beautiful Sarah Zimmerman, imagining the “Seven Beautiful Children” they’d raise were she not already promised to another.

He also gets swindled out of virtually every cent of his hard-earned savings, leaving him only enough cash to buy the cheapest fabric in Frisco, the distinctively blue canvas sails of ships unlikely to be heading anywhere soon, their crews having skedaddled inland to seek their fortune in “them thar hills.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Written in the 1980s with songs by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman and book by Larry Cohen and Janelle Webb Cohen, Levi! A New Musical feels more like a relic of even earlier decades (think 1951’s Paint Your Wagon or 1960’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown).

At times Disneyesque (Levi! A New Musical introduces us to a quartet of adorable Chinese laborers, three of whom must learn how to walk and talk “Like A Man” in order to pass for male), at other times a racy PG-13 (streetwakers provide Levi with much of his business), at still other times surprisingly topical (Levi is outspokenly pro-immigrant at a time of growing racial intolerance), Levi! A New Musical can’t quite decide what it wants to be.

That’s not to say that this hitherto undiscovered biomusical doesn’t have its charms. The Cohens’ book (with additional material by Bruce Kimmel) is frequently amusing, its characters colorful, and most of all, its songs as hummable as you might expect from the songwriting team who gave us Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and The Jungle Book.

Director Kimmel knows how to stage a production as epic and intimate as Levi! A New Musical, and choreographer Kay Cole knows how to bring out the best from her student cast in production numbers like the show-opening “Opportunity” that pits just-arrived immigrants against racist immigration officials; “Pay Dirt,” whose gold-prospecting miners open Act Two with shovels and pizzazz; and the musical’s rousing grand “Finale.” (An ill-conceived fantasy sequence that has the entire, mostly non-Asian cast pretending to be Chinese, on the other hand, should have wound up on the cutting room floor.)

Full-cast harmonies soar with musical director Richard Allen conducting a crackerjack seven-piece orchestra. Still, no individual voice takes flight anywhere near the heights reached by L.A. musical theater star Ginsburg’s glorious tenor, the multiple Scenie winner as commanding here has he has been in over a dozen major professional productions since 2013’s Sunset Boulevard introduced him to our local stages.

Ginsburg’s stellar presence proves a mixed blessing, however, both elevating the production and underlining the gap between his talent and experience and the very young stage newcomers who support him, many of them asked to play characters decades older than themselves.

That’s not to say that Theatre Academy students and alums Charlton Brio, Kyle Brogmus, Eugene Thomas Erlikh, Paola Fregoso, Rachel Frost, Bedjou Jean, Eliza Kim, Prisca Kim, Tristen Kim, Kole King, Christina McGrath, Shawna Merkely, Connor Clark Pascale, Anastasia Perevozova, Justice Quinn, Savannah Rutledge, Brianna Saranchock, James Singleton, Trenton Tabak, Sabrina Torres, and Jesse Trout don’t show talent and promise. They do, with (Tristen) Kim’s Han Chow a particular song-and-dance standout and Frost’s sweet-voiced Sarah and (Prisca) Kim’s feisty Su Lin earning their own applause. Child performers Hadley Belle Miller and Scotty Vibe are charmers as well.

No professional production could ask for finer designs than Tesshi Nakagawa’s versatile, wood-scaffold set (the black-and-white rear projections seen through gauze are stunning) and Morgan Gannes’s period-perfect costumes, lit to striking effect by Derek Jones, with Austin Quan’s sound mix as expert as sound designs come.

Levi! A New Musical is presented by The Los Angeles City College Theatre Academy, Kritzerland Entertainment, and A. Scott Bullitt. Joanna Erdos is associate producer. Maggie Marx is production stage manager and Karole Bennett is assistant stage manager.

Elucidating and entertaining, Levi! A New Musical may not have the legs its creative team are doubtless hoping for, nor is this the fully professional staging its World Premiere status merits. Still, when was the last time you saw a Sherman Brothers musical for the first time? For that reason alone, Levi! A New Musical is worth a look-see.

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Camino Theatre, Los Angeles City College, 855 N Vermont Ave., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
November 29, 2017
Photos: Carrie Frances Photography


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