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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

Nobody in here wants to chat. — Johnson
Christopher Fordinal and David Atkinson. Photo by Ed Krieger
A guy walks into a bar en route to the pawn shop where he plans to dump his guitar and, with it, any last dreams of making it as a musician. Instead he plays a few songs, listens to a few more and has his life irrevocably changed.

OK, sure, the quickie synopsis of Tim Alderson's musical Salvage makes it sound like we're in for a maudlin, cliche-ridden story of redemption. But go deeper. In fact, just plain go to the Lounge Theater along Hollywood Row. Although we may have seen a story like this before, we have not experienced it with this score. The production's world premiere at the Lounge Theater, directed by Damian D. Lewis, plucks at plenty more than just guitar strings. The acting is good. The music is formidable. Just try to remain unmoved by the songs that performers David Atkinson, Christopher Fordinal, and Nina Herzog bring forth.

There are 11 of them, a county-laced assortment of ballads and blues, and all performed by un-miked actors with the aid of one or two acoustic guitars. Salvage has four credited composer-lyricists: Mark Heard, Pat Terry, Randy Vanwarmer (all accomplished recording artists) and Alderson, who is also the play's book writer. I don't know how the composing tasks were divvied up or who wrote which number, but these songs are unquestionably the heartbeat of Salvage.

The unnamed bar where the action of the play takes place is a rat-trap in California's Central Valley. Photos of legendary axmen adorn the walls right next to a six-string, also hanging, that presumably could be taken down and played if the bar had any customers. The place is clean, the liquor supply appears to be well-stocked, and the tables and chairs all match. For all the talk that the place has fallen on hard times, scenic designer Joel Daavid may have rendered the joint a bit too pristine.

Be that as it may, this watering hole is where a celebrated musician named Floyd Whitaker died several years back and it's that notoriety that brings young buck Harley (played by Fordinal) through its doors. Harley's a Whitaker super-fan and a songwriter himself, and he's got a ton of questions for anybody who might have known the dead man. Alas, the two men in the bar have no interest in engaging. Surly barkeep/owner Johnson (Howze) will let Harley hang around as long as he buys drinks. The establishment's only customer is a surly middle-ager with a tired face and all the warmth of a rattlesnake. He goes by the name of Preacher (Atkinson) and, fortified by a bottle of Southern Comfort, plays a very mean guitar. When he's playing, Preacher wants no accompaniment, no company, no conversation, and certainly no Harley.

Somehow Harley lets it be known that he's about to permanently ditch his musical dreams. After he lays down the number “House of Broken Dreams,” Johnson exclaims “We've got a songwriter in the bar today.” Shortly thereafter, Harley's pregnant young wife Destiny (Herzog) tracks down her husband, discovers his intention and offers the exact opposite advice you'd expect her to give in such a situation. Suddenly, Preacher starts sticking his nose into Harley's business. But before he will go to the pawn shop, Harley wants the truth about the life and death of Floyd Whitaker. Johnson and Preacher can both shed some light, but that involves confronting some painful truths from their pasts.

You may see where this is heading and Alderson throws in a plot revelation that strains credulity big time. But these actors inhabit their roles so honestly that the occasional bit of narrative stiltedness is easily overlooked. Herzog burrows into the supportive wife role and gives it both smartness and warmth. When given the opportunity to lash out at someone who has hurt people close to her, Destiny takes the high road. Herzog is eminently believable, and her renditions of “Everything is Alright” and “Outrun the Wind” (both with Fordinal) are achingly lovely.

Fordinal works similar magic with Harley, a character who bursts on the scene as a star struck fanboy and seems to mature and deepen with every new bit of information he takes in. Salvage is largely Harley's story, and Fordinal keeps us in this kid's corner, handling a mean ax in the process.

And speaking of guitar finesse, the play's other musician, David Atkinson, is superb. Wearing all of Preacher's regret and self-loathing like a suit of armor, Atkinson never trolls for pity. Preacher may be a mess, but Atkinson gives him a sharp wit, enough pride to counter any potential self-destructiveness, and the lethal charisma that a songwriter turned rock star preacher could possess.

For the record, playwright Alderson is a first-time playwright, but a long-time lover of music whose day job is running a non-profit dedicated to battling food insecurity for low income households. Perhaps writing musicals is his dream no longer deferred. With Salvage, he makes a joyful noise.

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Book and Lyrics by Tim Alderson
Music and Lyrics by Mark Heard, Pat Terry, Randy Vanwarmer and Tim Alderson
Directed by Damian D. Lewis
Cast: David Atkison, Christopher Fordinal, Nina Herzog and Leonard Earl Howze
Scenic Design: Joel Daavid
Lighting Design: Matt Richter
Sound Design: John Zalewski
Costume Design: Wendell C. Carmichael
Sound Design: Chris Moscatiello
Music Director: Stephan Terry
Stage Manager: Laurien Allmon
Plays through January 19, 2020 at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, 323-960-7712, L.A.
Running time: One hour and 30 minutes with no intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson

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