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Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper and Aviva Pressman. (Photos courtesy of Jim Carmody.)

Some entertaining musicals over the past few years have focused, not on stars, but on the people behind them, those who helped make them successful. Motown: the Musical, for instance, was about Berry Gordy, while Million Dollar Quartet paid respect to Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records.

San Diego Repertory Theatre’s production of the world premiere, 33 1/3 – House of Dreams, in association with the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts among others, celebrates the life of Stan Ross (Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper), the co-founder/engineer of Gold Star Recording Studios.

The script by Jonathan Rosenberg and Brad Ross (with additional contributions by Steve Gunderson and Javier Velasco), uses an interesting framing device where an older Stan, in the 1980’s, is interviewed by Angela (Micah Fong) for a video documentary. As Stan starts talking about his past, the show jumps back in time several decades where a young Stan, hoping to get a job in the music business, co-founds Gold Star with his friend, Dave Gold (Jacob Caltrider). The two of them form a strong bond that resulted in a partnership that stood the test of time.

Following its opening in 1950, many unknown and rising musicians and bands began to record music at the studio. These included Ritchie Valens (Paul Chairez), Eddie Cochran (Sky Frank), Sonny (Bear Manescalchi) and Cher (Harmony Hernandez), The Beach Boys and The Runaways.

Rosenberg and Ross’ book is filled with humorous and clever dialogue, and it depicts people such as Stan, his wife Vera (Aviva Pressman), Dave and Dave’s wife, Mitzi (Bethany Slomka), as quick-witted individuals who share a sense of loyalty to each other. Additionally, the writers deal with producer and convicted murderer Phil Spector (Collin Leydon), in a measured and considerate fashion. They acknowledge his obvious talent and professional success, yet also show him to be a scary and dangerous man, particularly in an infamous incident involving The Ramones.

Although the show is long (it runs for about two and a half hours), there are actually a few scenes that could have been extended. One, in particular, deals a little bit with the origin of Alvin and the Chipmunks, but the audience doesn’t even get to hear a snippet of any song from the virtual band. It must be said, however, that there are more than 30 numbers presented during the evening, all performed very well by the singers and the orchestra.

Mongiardo-Cooper brings a confident demeanor to the role of Stan, portraying him at different stages of life with marked changes in his voice and physical movement. His performances include a sensitive “The Birds and the Bees” and “It Had to Be You,” a charming duet with Pressman.

Caltrider and Pressman have an easygoing rapport with Mongiardo-Cooper, while Michael Parrott, Christine Hewitt and Ron Christopher Jones each depict several characters, including playing the employees at Gold Star Studios. They all sing together perfectly during Dobie Gray’s hit single, “The In Crowd.”

Ron Christopher Jones, Michael Parrott and Christine Hewitt.

Some of the current SCPA students who leave lasting impressions are Chairez (Ritchie Valens), Janae Parson (Tina Turner) and Joshua Penrod (Brian Wilson). Each of them sing in a style reminiscent of the people they are playing, while still making the musical numbers their own. The orchestra (almost all the musicians are students), led by conductor Tamara Paige, plays the music from different decades in a very authentic manner, and cover genres ranging from classic pop to hard rock and roll.

Overseeing the entire show is director/choreographer, Velasco (his best moves are used in a dance-friendly finale). His staging portrays both the grand and intimate, and he drives the plot forward with his self-assured manner. With the exception of a few confusing short sequences when Mongiardo-Cooper talks with some of the other characters while facing the audience, Velasco packs a great deal of entertainment in the show.

Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ costumes and Blake McCarty’s projections highlight the fashion and history of each decade, and Sean Fanning’s set is a well-detailed replica of Gold Star Studios.

The first ever world premiere event between the San Diego Rep and SCPA (it has been extended to September 1), staged at the Lyceum Space in Horton Plaza, features plenty of great moments from the professional performers and talented students alike. I left the theatre very satisfied by this energetic tribute to an iconic producer and recording studio.

[box] Show times are Sundays at 2:00 p.m and 7:00 p.m, Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m, Thursdays at 8:00 p.m, Fridays at 8:00 p.m and Saturdays at 2:00 p.m and 8:00 p.m. [/box]

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San Diego Repertory Theatre
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David Dixon

David Dixon

A fan of theatre from a young age, David Dixon began writing reviews while in middle school, for Union Tribune’s Rated G column and sdcnn.com. He was the Entertainment Editor for SDSU’s The Daily Aztec. Currently, he contributes to San Diego Community News Network, a regional reviewer for Talkin’ Broadway, an interviewer for San Diego Theatre Reviews and has won several San Diego Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. David is a San Diego Theatre Critics Circle member, an American Theatre Critics Association member & Regional Theatre Tony Award voter.

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