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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Inside the cerebellums of husband and wife composer/librettists Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, magic happens both individually and working as a team. The Lopezes have created both the aforementioned Dan and Lindsay, the T-shirt designer who may be Dan's soul mate. . .if Dan's too active brain will cooperate.
The musical theater world already knows Robert Lopez from his work on Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, and husband and wife gave the world the songs of Disney's Frozen. Up Here, in its world premiere bow at the La Jolla Playhouse, long predates the earworm of "Let it Go" and could technically be counted as Team Lopez's first collaboration for the stage. It is a beaut. Hush up you emotions of Pixar's Inside Out. If Up Here progresses no further than La Jolla, it would be a true crime against imagination.
With a winning Matt Bittner and Betsy Wolfe starring for director Alex Timbers, Up Hereis a crazy quilt of a show. It is simultaneously outlandish and small in its ambition, audacious and quirky, overreaching and a bit messy. It contains dancing cacti, portions of the psyche wearing Gestapo regalia, a lesson on evolution in which a rock plays a vital role, and a finale featuring a former Best Buy employee serenading his boss.
Above all, there is the Lopezes's witty and delightful score and a dramatic sensibility that clings to an old-fashioned notion of happily ever after even amidst mounting evidence that no such resolution should ever be possible. Ever.
That's because the inhabitants of Dan's brain who work to sabotage him and keep him partner-less far outnumber the rah-rah cells. There's the hugely negative Humbug (played by Devere Rogers), the fussy over-particular Critic (Jeff Hiller), and the twins Cool Guy and Cool Girl (Andrew Call and Gizel Jimenez) who have Dan convinced that he will not measure up in any situation. Against these kinds of aggressive downers, ego boosters like the Captain of the Guard (Kikau Alvaro) and the hickish lumberjack Mr. Can-Do (Devin Ratray) don't have a snowball's chance in Hades of ever making Dan make himself happy.
The entire motley crew of Dan's dome spill out onto the stage in the play's first scene. Dressed by Ann Closs-Farley in a variety of cheeky duds from all corners of pop culture, Dan's consciousness zeroes in on their owner's dreams and insecurities. This takes place continuously, especially as Dan is fixing the iMac belonging to Lindsay who is cute, friendly, receptive and in transition. As this tale is told from Dan's perspective, we never meet the contents of her brain, but given her handling of a frolicsome lyric like "I have. . . no-idea-what-I'm-doing", she's probably not as out of his league as he may think she is.
New variables include Lindsay's socially awkward brother Tim (Eric Petersen) and her ex-boyfriend Ed (Nick Verina). The Lopezes are tracking a boy-meets-girl scenario. The principal barriers to the romance: Dan doesn't talk enough, Lindsay's not knowing what Dan thinks, and Dan's overbearing consciousness having too many opinions and too much influence over their already highly insecure master.
The Lopezes may be mining a more universal question about the difficulty of really knowing anybody (we witness it in Dan and Lindsay and also in Tim's romantic travails), but honestly Up Here is such fun, such a visual delight and so out-and-out charismatic, the musical does not invite a lot of deep thought. It also feels like, in its current incarnation, Timbers and the Lopezes are employing a certain throw-it-all-at-the-wall-and-sees-what-sticks abandon. Diversions featuring an unnamed child (Giovanni Cozic), the aforementioned rock, and the formation of the universe lessons feel like bloat. An audience participation bit in which Dan and Lindsay visit therapists, is &emdash; if the "volunteer" is not an actor &emdash; wince-worthy.
Timbers, who with Roger Rees brought an entirely different and no less enchanting magic to Peter and the Starcatcher makes for an ideal captain of this vessel——a simple tale told with rock and roll verve and a whole lotta technical virtuosity. But circus or chamber piece (and at times, it's both), Up Here has in Timbers a worthy ringmaster.
The leads are pretty terrific themselves. Wearing every Star Wars t-shirt ever stitched, Bittner walks the line between nerdy hero and henpecked schlub. It's not at all amusing to watch a misguided Dan barrel into so many bad choices, but Bittner makes us want our too-smart-for-his-own-good hero to emerge the better for it. After The Last Five Years, the cute but imperfect girl next door is becoming a cakewalk for Wolfe, but the lady can pull at your heart strings and sing the stuffing out of a number.
As for those heroes and Dark Forces who steer Dan's ship, I wouldn't want them in my brain, but I sure enjoyed hanging with them for a couple of hours.