Buried inside the prodigious dazzle of virtuoso stagecraft that out-sparkles many a billion-dollar, special-effects movie – really, you just can’t beat LIVE – the new musical Up Here at the La Jolla Playhouse is just a dear little boy-meets-girl fairy tale goosed with feelgood zowie that lasts for… well, can’t tell yet.
The boy is a 30-ish computer geek, dressed always in droopy plaid shirt and sneaks, who doesn’t remove his glasses even to have sex. The girl, responsibly mature and certain there’s more to life than an office cubicle, is the sort who fakes neither sweetness nor orgasms. Their courtship moves through Manhattan coffee shops, museums, subway stops, public parks and bed.
Pretty standard stuff? Not so fast.
Up Here Company at La Jolla Playhouse. Matthew Murphy Photos.
“Up here,” it turns out, is inside the boy’s head, where a whirling fantasmagora of galactic excess backgrounds a struggle for control between such shards of the whole him as Cool Guy, Mr. Can Do, Critic, dancing cacti, hound dogs, boy scouts of glitz, moon maidens, plate techtonics, polka dot superheroes… a whole Comic-Con™ of the mind, splattered all over the stage at the flick of a word.
Everybody’s head contains something similar, the story asserts. But this show is about the circus in DAN’S head, the one that renders him frozen and speechless when he suddenly senses that Lindsay actually might be interested in HIM. Stammering out that first invitation to get coffee requires a Herculean struggle, complete with smoke and flashing swordplay, among the opposing forces up there in Dan’s head. And later, when things are going badly for Dan, a snarky voice encourages him to withdraw, away from the “outsiders.” It’s a scary, poignant line.
In the real world out there, all is pretty ordinary. Dan has in the past shown interest is making art, maybe animated films. Lindsay is starting a tee-shirt design business, singularly unpromising, I’d say. There’s an ex-boyfriend, a square jawed, buff, resolutely upbeat future captain of industry called, with breezy indifference by Lindsay’s weird younger brother, “Mr. Ed.” That brother, appealing in a vague, slobby, harmless way, is probably the most interesting character outside of Dan’s head.
Mr. Ed is a keen opponent. The courtship turns rocky enough that both Lindsay and Dan sign on with shrinks, and share the play’s most memorable music moment, “Stranger,” a duet addressed past each other and directly at a bewildered audience volunteer. (I think I heard some ad libbed lyrics discussing the poor lady dragooned onstage opening night. If so, quite a bold concept for two actors trying to hold together a new musical.)
Ah, the music, a couple of dozen sturdy songs and such by the extraordinarily talented connubial tandem of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. (Not to namedrop, but they did the score for the Disney hit Frozen and he was one of the guys who created The Book of Mormon.)
The Lopezes also did the book for Up Here, a breezy, casual account of nice people finishing in the money. Nothing about the writing stands out except, upon reflection, the opportunities provided for a host of interpretive collaborators.
In such a cohesive success, it’s hard to choose the most important elements and it’s not worth the effort anyway. Director Alex Timbers probably had a finger in nearly everything since there’s ample evidence of a visionary coordinator. And Joshua Bergasse had his 21 actors dancing with vivid eloquence.
But, oh, those visuals! David Korins free-form cavern interior has walls of blistered bubbles that writhe and gesticulate under David J. Weiner’s needle-sharp light blasts one moment, then everything flops into a balmy summer street scene the next. Dan Scully’s flowing projections are the connecting tissue.
Ann Closs-Farley might have considered paying the management for such a costuming opportunity as this, a whole world of fresh fantasies. But there were also was a montage of everyday reality stuff required and supplied with the insoucience that distinguishes this show.
Aron Accurso presided in the pit at principal keyboard and supplied some incidental music. Dave Metzger’s orchestrations are full and free with droll bits here and there.
Matt Bittner plays Dan with a blocked nebbish effect most of the way, setting up Lindsay’s most perceptive line: “You think too much and don’t talk enough.” Betsy Wolfe as Lindsay discards any girlish hysteria and concentrates on building successfully the life her frank, open, decency is earning her. There’s no special chemistry between the two but each knows how to move a role along and they sing with authority.
Many are the opportunities for the supporting actors, in between costume changes. Eric Petersen plays that odd brother with a dogged conviction that manages (just barely)to set up the finale, when nearly everybody gets what they want except for Mr. Ed, played with dreary self-confidence by Nick Verina.
The majority of the excellent actors are making their La Jolla Playhouse debuts, which suggests a production assembled elsewhere and hoping to join the line for a home on Broadway. San Diego audiences, used to such arrangements, may well help switch Up Here to the fast track.
“Prologue” – Orchestra, Full Company
“Up Here” – Dan, Full Company
“I Have No Idea What I’m Doing” – Lindsay
“Your Kind Of Woman” – Dan, Full Company
“Downward Spiral” – Puppet versions of Dan’s Parents, Laundry Pile, Dark Forces
“Date Montage (Oh My Sweetheart)” – Dan, Quartet
“I Feel Like I’ve Always Known You” – Dan, Lindsay
“Happy Go Lucky” – Mr. Can-Do, Dan, Miners, Cacti
“This Beautiful Museum” Dan, Lindsay, Humbug, Critic, Company
“Bad Sex” – Cool Guy, Cool Girl, Company
“Up There” – Lindsay
“Yay” – Tim, Lindsay, Dan
“Dragon Coaster” – Full Company
“I Have No Idea What I’m Doing (reprise)” – Lindsay
“I Can Never Know You” – Dark Forces, Dan, Lindsay
“Entr’acte” – Orchestra
“Don’t You Just Hate Dan?” – Dark Forces
“Stranger” – Dan, Lindsay
“Haka” – Haka Warriors
“Danny Dog” – Dogs, Dan, Company
“The Glory Of What Was” – Dan, Lindsay
“There’s No Such Thing As The Number One” – Tim, Tina
“Consciousness” – Dan
“Rock VI (Finale)” – Dan, Child, Lindsay, Company
Continues in the Mandell Weiss Theatre at 7 p.m. Sundays; 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 6, 2015.