Chasing the Song (La Jolla Playhouse)

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Today many musical artists write their own songs, but this wasn’t always the case. In the late 1950s – 60s, New York song shops housed in the 11-story Brill Building in Times Square was where a majority of hit songs were produced. The songwriter’s goal would be to get a popular recording artist to perform their song and with any luck the song would hit the top of the Billboard charts. Kitschy songs about love and tragedy seemed to have been the main theme, but as times changed with protests of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, so did the music. Soon song shops would no longer exist as the British Invasion took over in the U.S. and the Beatles made history in April of 1964 by having the top five songs on the Billboard Top 100 singles chart.

David Bryan and Joe Dipietro have created a new musical production, Chasing the Song, that is refreshing and filled with high-energy choreography. Not only do the actors sing and dance, but play musical instruments, like the piano and guitar, which is very fitting for the song shop setting and a wonderful component that will make you love the play even more.

There are many surprising creative elements, including the transformation of the four pianos that sit on stage. As the musical moves from scene to scene the pianos open up to create different props, like a bar, recording studio, and a fire escape.

There’s no doubt the fire escape scene will be a favorite with audience members. It begins with the male songwriters contemplating their future. As they sit and ponder, one starts a rhythmic beat on a wooden box. Soon the others follow with their own beat with snaps, slaps, and an outstanding tap dance (performed by Jake Weinstein) creating a sound that makes you want to get up and dance,

I loved this play and would have seen it again if I hadn’t attended one of the last few performances. Since this is a page to stage production, the show I saw had already been developed and finessed into a Broadway worthy musical. I’m sure of it – it’s that good!

The Book of Mormon (Broadway San Diego)

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There’s no need to be a fan of South Park to enjoy the 2011 Tony award-winning musical, The Book of Mormon. This religious musical satire follows two young Mormon men to Uganda for missionary work. They soon discover that spreading the Latter Day Saint’s doctrine isn’t as easy as they had thought, especially when the local villagers are more concerned with threats to their own safety from AIDS, corrupt militia, and female genital mutilation. Joining an Elder group already assigned to Uganda, the two newbies, Elder Price (James David Larson) and Elder Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand), believe that if the natives give the Mormon faith a chance, they will convert.

The mission goes awry when Price, who wishes he were assigned to Orlando, bails on the group, and goofball Cunningham (who is a cross between the personas of Jonah Hill and Chris Farley) is put on the spot to preach The Book to the locals. There’s only one problem, Cunningham hasn’t read the entire book. He fakes it until he makes it, bringing in dogma from Star Wars, Star Trek and Lord of the Rings. Cunningham’s teachings are of another allegiance, but certainly one that’s a lot more fun and, quite frankly, ridiculous. Just imagine what happens when the locals perform a skit of what they learned for the Mormon review committee. All hell breaks loose, but the two tribes come together for a happy ending.

Creators Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone bring in some crude humor and profanity. Their use of naïve and nerdy Mormon men uniting with lively Africans will get you to smile and laugh, making for an entertaining show.

Even the delivery of lines, lyrics, and choreography is well thought out and gives a bit of playfulness to the overall musical, especially in “Turn It Off”, when the Elders explain how to manage so-called negative feelings, like dealing with an abusive parent and thoughts of being gay. Turning your thoughts off like a light switch is their simple answer. Completely ridiculous, but then again, that’s the point.

The set and costumes were not overdone, which made it easy to follow the storyline and not get distracted by an elaborate production.

The cast was outstanding and Cody Jamison Strand gave a funny and energetic performance.

Water by the Spoonful (The Old Globe)

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On the surface Water by the Spoonful deals with recovering crack addicts and broken relationships, but this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama offers so much more.

We’re first introduced to cousins Elliot (Rey Lucas) and Yazmine (Sarah Nina Hayon) discussing the health of their Aunt Ginny, who soon passes away. For Elliot, the loss of his aunt is especially difficult since she raised him from when he was five, and he considers her his own mother. Soon he is forced to reconnect with his birth mother, and their meeting brings up bad childhood memories and issues of abandonment. Elliot is also struggling with a leg injury from a tour in Iraq, an addiction to painkillers. and haunted visions of a slain Iraqi civilian. Luckily for Elliot, Yazmine, strong willed and well educated, fulfills a motherly role as she nurtures him and provides emotional support as Elliot struggles to adjust to civilian life.

Eventually, we learn that Odessa (Marilyn Torres) is Elliot’s biological mother, who has been estranged from her family since becoming a crack addict, and whose poor parenting skills led to the death of her daughter. Now sober, Odessa spends most of her days running an online chat room to support other addicts in their efforts to get and stay clean. Perhaps this fills the void of having failed as mother and provides her a purpose in life.

As the multi-colored neon tube lights that cross overhead and under the stage floor flicker on, it’s apparent that we are connected to the chat room and are able to meet Odessa’s clan. Each addict has his or her own story and path to recovery. Here we learn the challenges of admitting and overcoming an addiction. It’s a tough journey, but one filled with hope and a second chance at life, a rebirth if you will.

Sometimes small steps are needed to heal wounds, mend relationships, and make peace with the past. Some call it baby steps, others may call it taking it one day at a time. Playwright, Quiara Alegría Hudes calls it Water by the Spoonful.

Photo: Marilyn Torres as Odessa Ortiz aka Haikumom in the California Premiere of Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Water by the Spoonful, directed by Edward Torres.