'Breaking Through': Theater Review

Alison Luff and Matt Magnusson - H 2015
Courtesy of Jim Cox
Strong direction and solid performances cannot elevate this by-the-numbers showbiz tale.

This world-premiere musical by the songwriting team of Cliff Downs and Katie Kahanovitz casts a jaundiced eye on the music industry.

It’s all about chasing a dream, having a song to sing and staying true to oneself. When it works, there’s untold fortune and fame. But when it doesn’t, that can lead to drug addiction, rehab and hawking your memoir on a talk show. Breaking Through, making its world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, is an unabashed showbiz musical. And if you can name any other title in the genre, you know the drill — wide-eyed aspirant with big dreams gets her first break; seduced by money and fame, she stumbles into the arms of the wrong guy and substance abuse, sobers up, meets the right guy and learns a lesson. What sets one apart from the other is seldom the story but the songs. And if the songs in Breaking Through happened to be great, it probably wouldn’t matter that the story reads like a checklist of genre cliches. Sadly, they aren't.

First-time composer-lyricist Katie Kahanovitz got her break at age 18, when she signed a record deal and toured as opening act for headliners like the Jonas Brothers. She soon quit after finding herself bound up in an industry that wanted her to be anything but what she was. “Just a girl and a guitar,” is what she was, and that' s how the show describes Charlie Jane (Alison Luff), Breaking Through's main character, a rough sketch of Kahanovitz.

When we first meet her, she's on an audition, strumming her guitar and nervously singing the title song. As she loses herself in the lyric, scenic designer John Iacovelli’s practical screens slide out, revealing David O.’s band on a second- story riser with a staircase leading to the main space below, where most of the action takes place.

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The opening ensemble number seamlessly introduces the characters and milieu as we learn that Jane’s mother is a former recording artist who became an addict and disappeared. Her mother’s old friend Amanda (Nita Whitaker) is a music exec who got Jane the audition, and eventually gets her a meeting with pop idol Scorpio (Matt Magnusson).

An egotistical jerk at first, Scorpio finds her music “interesting.” Magnusson brings warmth and dimension to Scorpio, and we quickly discern that beneath his pop-star exterior, he's like Jane, only without the conviction. He is in fact very different from his public persona, but being what the label wants him to be has made him a star. His “All or Nothin’ ” is an upbeat rock-pop number delivered with charismatic vitality, bringing some badly needed juice to the production in the early going. Jane winds up recording a duet with him, which becomes a hit, and the label, personified by its Mephistophelean top executive (Robert W. Arbogast), offers her a contract. But only if she agrees to play the songs they’ve written for her, and pretend to be Scorpio’s girlfriend.

Center stage throughout, Luff is a warm and engaging presence, sustained by her character's passion and sincerity in a bloodless world of star makers. Along with the rest of the cast, she fully commits to often ham-handed dialog and sings the mainly memory-defying melodies with admirable dedication. Once she’s finally given a chance to shine in the finale, “Let It Rain,” she does just that, tackling the show’s climactic strains with infectious joy.

Kacee Clanton (A Night With Janis Joplin) makes a welcome return to the Pasadena Playhouse as Karina, a former hit maker who’s a tad too old for Scorpio and a Grammy nomination short of a new contract. Her second-act swan song, “Breathe In," is a showstopper, with Clanton belting out the long notes in a voice blended with heartbreak and bitterness. Karina befriends Jane at first, but by the end she represents a cautionary tale; what Jane could easily become should she get all she wishes for.

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The second act seems to be where the best tunes have been hiding, with Whitaker arriving two songs later to sing a similar number, “For the Best,” about life’s sacrifices and trade-offs, gorgeously rendered in her fulsome mezzo- soprano voice. Whitaker works well with limited material, archly reflecting the stoic persona of the label and committing to the industry's heartless rules in the hope it will result in something gratifying.

A generation separates the songwriting team of Kahanovitz and Cliff Downs, though both of them are steeped in pop. Downs is an Emmy winner for his work on numerous TV shows as well as a composer and producer of many top 40 songs in styles ranging from pop to contemporary Christian. After 12 years of working together, in 2010 they decided to turn some of their songs into a musical, which they developed at Pasadena Playhouse's new play program.

Artistic director Sheldon Epps was taken by their familiar showbiz premise, but thought the book could use some shading, so he turned to Kristen Guenther (the upcoming Benny & Joon adaptation) to add some of the darker elements. As such, the dialogue features gems like, “If you let it, it will eat you alive,” when describing the music industry, alongside flaccid lyrics like, “I’ve got what it takes, all I need’s a break.”

Whatever the show’s shortcomings, Epps works well with his actors, particularly in the intimate scenes where he generates palpable chemistry between Jane and Scorpio's assistant Smith (Will Collyer) in their getting-to-know-you phase, as well as a later scene with Jane and Scorpio. The cast is uniformly strong, and the multifaceted ensemble outdoes itself populating most scenes with a wide variety of bit parts. While Breaking Through is hamstrung by its middling book and music, strong acting and outstanding singing offer moments of transcendence.

Cast: Alison Luff, Nita Whitaker, Teya Patt, Katherine Tokarz, Matt Magnusson, Will Collyer, Kacee Clanton, Robert W. Arbogast, Fatima El-Bashir, Jessica Jaunich, Reed Kelly, Christopher Marcos, Dominic Pierson, Andrew Pirozzi, Terrance Spencer, Laura L. Thomas, Samantha Zack
Director: Sheldon Epps
Book: Kirsten Guenther
Music and Lyrics: Cliff Downs, Katie Kahanovitz
Set designer: John Iacovelli
Costume designer: Alex Jaeger

Lighting designer: Jared A. Sayeg
Sound designer: Peter Fitzgerald
Music supervisor and arrangements: David O
Choreographer: Tyce Diorio
Presented by Pasadena Playhouse, in association with NSK Productions, ShowWorks, Wolfe Theatricals