Theater Review: UP HERE (La Jolla Playhouse)

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by Tony Frankel on August 10, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


It’s an idea whose time has already come this summer, and with far superior results. In fact, the character of Lindsay, a t-shirt designer who has fallen for the analytical nerdy computer whiz Dan, mentions on their first date the enormously successful Disney•Pixar film Inside Out, which chronicles the many voices inside a little girl’s head. And this world premiere musical, which opened at the La Jolla Playhouse last night, is about the many voices inside Dan’s head. Interestingly enough, Lindsay mentions only Pixar as the creator of Inside Out, but not Disney. That struck me as odd because this inconsequential new musical contains book, music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez, best known as the team who wrote the songs for Disney’s Frozen and Finding Nemo – The Musical in Disney World’s Animal Kingdom.

Matt Bittner and Betsy Wolfe in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere musical UP HERE

Mr. Lopez also co-conceived and co-wrote Avenue Q and Book of Mormon. That’s worth mentioning because Up Here contains both bouncy, inoffensive Sesame Street-like music and foul language. I am far from a prude, but lyrics that mention the bleaching of an asshole (regardless that it’s from a voice in Dan’s mind) and continuous f-bombs tell me one thing: Both story and character development are in trouble. Director Alex Timbers has proven time and again that he can stage the shit out of a show (Peter and the Starcatcher, The Last Goodbye), but this funhouse on steroids lacks guidance.

It’s as if the real-life married Lopezes wrote the show knowing exactly what the theatrical conceits would be; isn’t that a director’s job? Example: In the second act, Lindsay and Dan are in split-screen therapy sessions singing something like “Don’t You Just Hate Dan?” (no song list was provided); the device is that an audience member is plucked from the first row and put on stage between the singing, sparring characters. The cheap laugh-segment may be a temporary high for audience members titillated by this corny crap, but its a new low in musical construction.

Betsy Wolfe, Matt Bittner and the cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere musical UP HERE

Speaking of construction, this frothy, frenetic, cute, confusing, innocuous, incongruous musical comedy has so many head-scratching moments that interest starts lagging not long into Act I and all but disappears in Act II: It’s tough to buy that Dan (an agreeable Matt Bittner), an out-of-shape, desperately quiet schlub is found irresistible by the hot and perky Lindsay (the immensely engaging Betsy Wolfe); throughout the show, a little boy (an appealing Giovanni Cozic) appears talking about a rock as if lecturing at a science fair, and, although I had my suspicions early on as to his identity, his presence was positively baffling; Lindsay’s on-the-spectrum brother Tim (Eric Petersen), who lives in her apartment, has a black girlfriend known as Tina (Zonya Love), and even though we see him pursue her at an amusement park and a Best Buy, we have no idea who she is (and what the hell is Corporate America doing in ANY musical?); Lindsay has an ex-boyfriend, Ed (Nick Verina) who reappears in her life but he’s such a superficially unlikable character that it doesn’t create any conflict (and really, what’s with the Mr. Ed jokes?). The list, believe it or not, goes on and on. Yet over an hour into the first act, the only conflict in the book is between Dan and the many many voices in his head.

The cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere musical UP HERE

The 19 members of the chorus are given some plum roles as those voices–Mr. Can-Do, Cool Guy, Humbug, etc., but they are made distinctive not by character development on paper but by the million dollar technical treatment on stage. The visuals are astounding. Ann Closs-Farley has a field-day with the imaginative costumes, including dogs, tribal warriors, amusement park employees, and that happy-go-lucky lumberjack and dancing cactus who pick at Dan’s brain. I loved that one of the voices, The Critic, is tall, imposing, and effete in Jeff Hiller’s characterization, but nothing in lyric or libretto gives us insight as to what motivates a critic. Fortunately, Closs-Farley distracts with his Oscar Wilde-ish futuristic get up. And the set is like the inside of a circus dark ride: Set designer David Korins’ proscenium flies look like old-fashioned candy buttons on paper tape, and they are fantastically lit by David J. Weiner.

Betsy Wolfe and Matt Bittner in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere musical UP HERE

Ultimately, it comes down to the simplistic bookwriting, made even more trite with topical references. So much of it sounds like an ABC Afterschool Special, which educates us how to silence those pesky inner voices. Since the conceit is simple, the songs need to crank up the intelligence. Lindsay has a song devoted to her repeating that she wants to know what’s going on “Up There” in that convoluted brain of Dan’s, but Sondheim said more in one line of Company‘s “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” than we get in an entire song.

Although I immediately noticed the Inside Out similarity before Lindsay even mentioned it, I was totally behind this show for longer than I should have been. I thought it would suddenly dig deeper or become surprising or offer ingenious twists. But it only served to reinforce the negative thoughts already swirling in my own head.

photos by Matthew Murphy

Up Here
La Jolla Playhouse
2910 La Jolla Village Dr in La Jolla
ends on September 6, 2015
for tickets, call (858) 550-1010 or visit La Jolla Playhouse

{ 1 comment }

Cris Franco August 11, 2015 at 10:51 am

Mr. Frankel, thanks for your thoughtful, brutally honest review. With a legacy ranging from the glorious Gershwin to the exacting Sondheim — to what do you attribute today’s lack of flowing, intergrated scores? Is it a lack of talent or is it that melody is now perceived as old-fashioned, sentimental and melodramatic? The death of melody is what rarefied modern opera. What do today’s “bouncy, inoffensive” compositions herald for the modern American musical?

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