"Motown" photos by Joan Marcus.
Two musicals currently playing in LA are at least partially set in bygone days of LA's pop music business. Both of them focus on music-industry pioneers who -- 50 or 60 years ago -- were determined to expand the audience for African-American sounds into the younger ranks of mainstream America.
Eventually it might be fascinating to see these musicals programmed together, in a double bill as part of a single company's repertory. But the current productions are diametrical opposites in terms of scale and polish.
"Motown the Musical," exploring the life of Motown founder and boss Berry Gordy, is at the 2700-seat Pantages Theatre in Hollywood -- not far from where Motown was headquartered after it moved from Detroit in 1972. Less than a mile to the south is the 99-seat Lillian Theatre, where "Recorded in Hollywood" explores a decade in the life of John Dolphin, a music producer who operated the influential 24-hour record store Dolphin's of Hollywood from 1948 to 1958 near the intersection of Central Avenue and Vernon in South LA. Despite its name, Dolphin's was far from Hollywood, because - so the musical relates -- racist covenants prevented Dolphin from setting up his shop in Hollywood.
The creative sources behind these productions are hardly impartial observers. Gordy himself is one of the three producers of "Motown" and its librettist (for the record, David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan are listed in small type as "script consultants"). Gordy also co-wrote, with Michael Lovesmith, three new songs for the show - in addition to the 57 (!) golden oldies that are at least briefly performed in "Motown." "The Legendary Motown Catalog" receives the primary score credit.
The production's chronology of Gordy's life begins in 1938, when he was eight, refers to the next 15 or so years only fleetingly and indirectly, then continues with Gordy's attempts to hawk his own songs, before using family money to launch his own label in 1959.
Approximately the first two-thirds of "Motown" is set in Detroit, followed by his defection to the bright lights of LA. We hear quickly about Gordy's first early marriage and the three children from that union, but not about his subsequent marriages and children. Instead, he boils down his romantic affairs almost entirely to his long personal as well as professional coupling with Diana Ross. To Gordy's credit, he shoulders some of the responsibility for the relationship's low points as well as its highs - these two didn't always "hear a symphony."
Meanwhile, three sons of John Dolphin receive credit as the "supporters" of "Recorded in Hollywood." Jamelle Dolphin, grandson of John, wrote the biography on which the musical is based and co-wrote the show's book, with Matt Donnelly. Although "Recorded" re-creates a couple of the era's familiar classics, most of its score is a new homage to the sounds of the era, by Andy Cooper.
Most of "Recorded in Hollywood" is set in the store itself. The staging even suggests that Dolphin died in the store, which he didn't. His manner of death and its prelude (which I shouldn't reveal here) is the show's most disturbing undercurrent. Otherwise, the tone is generally celebratory, although the show acknowledges that Dolphin, too, had affairs with other women outside his marriage.
Both musicals make a convincing case that their protagonists, although motivated by profits, also contributed to breaking down some of America's racial barriers - largely by producing exhilarating music that intoxicated people of all races, and only secondarily via more organized civil rights efforts.
I wish I could say that "Recorded in Hollywood" is the better of these two shows, because I'm always drawn to LA-developed musicals, and certainly John Dolphin's story is less familiar than Berry Gordy's. At this point, however, "Recorded in Hollywood" still seems to be on the level of a workshop.
The book needs a rewrite. Among its problems are a couple of moments that sent my eyebrows upward over what felt like over-the-top embellishments. Let's just say that these incidents aren't mentioned in the "History" section of the Dolphins of Hollywood website - leading me to distracting doubts about whether they really happened as depicted.
The production needs a sound designer, especially considering its title and subject matter. The original lyrics were sometimes difficult to decipher and therefore difficult to assess.
On the other hand, "Motown" is probably as good as it's ever going to get. It covers more decades than "Recorded," but it's much more sharply focused. The design team is first-rate, and director Charles Randolph-Wright signs, seals and delivers it with professional aplomb.
While I like to encourage the use of original scores for most musicals, for "Motown" a jukebox approach was inevitable, and all those familiar riffs trigger instant and irresistible sense memories. Also, the show's sheer pageant-like size (a cast of 34, most of them convincingly playing multiple characters) reinforces the sense that this show has a vital American story to tell.
Recorded in Hollywood photo above by Ed Krieger
Scene from 'Side Show'. Photo by Isaac James Creative.
The best musical production in Greater LA right now is in Fullerton - T.J. Dawson's revival of the seldom-seen "Side Show" for 3-D Theatricals, at the Plummer. Bill Russell's book and lyrics and Henry Krieger's music tell the story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who became freak-show attractions in the '20s, before moving up into vaudeville.
This isn't the latest version of the show, which recently played in La Jolla, Washington and on Broadway with 12 new songs and with apparently major changes in the book, supervised by director Bill Condon (who, by the way, credited not only the Broadway original but also Colony Theatre's 2002 production in Burbank with attracting him to "Side Show"). Let's hope that some LA company is about to announce a local production of the new "Side Show."
Still, Dawson's rendition of the original is quite powerful. Unlike many 3-D productions, it's playing only in Fullerton, through this weekend, without an extension in Redondo Beach.
Watching the actors in "Side Show" occupying mobile bleachers as part of the set, I was reminded of how much fun I had as an audience member at La Mirada Theatre's recent production of "Carrie the Musical." At "Carrie" (based on the Stephen King novel), those of us in the front part of the audience were also perched on mobile bleachers, which were moved at intervals, reconfiguring the very fluid playing area, often bringing us closer to the action.
This revised version of the Lawrence D. Cohen/Dean Pitchford/Michael Gore musical was the latest of La Mirada's now-annual productions in which the entire audience is seated on the stage, reducing a Broadway-size proscenium venue to the dimensions of a much more intimate midsize theater. In director Brady Schwind's version of "Carrie," however, the reduced stage was suddenly, unexpectedly expanded again in a brilliant second-act moment.
Producers reportedly want to export this concept of "Carrie" from La Mirada to the rest of America. How about starting it in LA with the same cast that did it in La Mirada? It's the kind of show that could quickly develop a rapidly growing cult following, and it deserves a longer LA life at a midsize venue closer to the many young adults in the big city. You were bored by your own prom? Just wait till you see Carrie's.
Meanwhile, the Colony is presenting "Words by Ira Gershwin," in which Jake Broder (of "Louis and Keely" fame) plays the lyricist, serving primarily as an emcee for a stroll through some of the standards and novelty numbers on which he shared credit -- not only with his composer brother George but also with Kurt Weill, Harold Arlen and Vernon Duke.
Two other singers, Elijah Rock and Angela Teek, enliven the evening considerably, along with pianist and musical director Kevin Toney. But Broder occasionally appears a bit stranded as the titular star and hub; as the character points out, it was his brother who had the charisma.
With a script and musical arrangements by Joseph Vass and direction by David Ellenstein, "Words by Ira Gershwin" is pleasant, but it isn't nearly as gripping as the Colony's other recent examination of an American Songbook founding father, Lorenz Hart, in "Falling for Make Believe."