A review by Bill Garry.
Recorded in Hollywood, given a trial run last year in a small theater in Hollywood, has returned with a bigger score and a bigger staging in a bigger theater (the Kirk Douglas in Culver City). Unfortunately, the net result is diminished.
We loved the show last year; it was a powerful tribute to a man -- John Dolphin -- who fought racism and his own demons to become an entertainment legend in Los Angeles' entertainment community. You left the show both inspired and heartbroken. You saw an ambitious man, but also a man deeply in love with his wife -- such love motivating and nurturing him through the challenges of his life. The show needed structural work -- cutting away some fat here, shoring up some characters there -- but it had the makings of a hit.
This new version has cut away much of the emotional heart while adding a lot of unnecessary show-busy-ness and biography which slows the production down. The main story -- John's inner strength and motivation -- has been cut to the bone. We really want to fall in love with John, but he is kept at arms length. The result is a two-and-a-half hour show that is flat and fat.
To be fair, a Broadway musical is an enormous, complex machine. Cutting in one place always affects someplace else. Composer/lyricist Andy Cooper's songs (and there are 25 of them, about five too many) perfectly reflect the beat of the times, and give voice to the emotions of the characters. The book by Matt Donnelly and Jamelle Dolphin (John Dolphin's grandson), however, sometimes works against the expression of those emotions.
The show begins with a big jazzy number in a local night club. The scene, full of Hollywood types both black and white, leads us to believe that the South Central music scene is a big success. John (Stu James, from the original cast, blending warmth, intelligence, and cockiness) wants to be a part of it. He is determined to bring South Central soul to white man's turf by opening a record shop in the middle of Hollywood. He heads out the next day to rent a storefront, only to be denied a lease because of the color of his skin. He sings "Open Up," a fight song that, while angry, doesn't provide any insight into that anger.
Too clever to accept defeat, Dolphin opens his store back in South Central under the name "Dolphin's of Hollywood." The show immediately centers itself around that store and begins to slowly detail his fight to "cross over" and bring the black and white community together.
Hold on. Didn't we see integrated success in the opening number? It looks like "Ain't We Havin' A Time" (the opening song) was premature. I was confused until the fourth song, a beautiful gospel tune with star-to-be Sam Cooke (a smooth Thomas Hobson), when the real theme of the show emerged: the fight to self-express and realize undiscovered potential.
In the store, John auditions acts and hires store clerks. One woman, Ruth (a winning Jenna Gillespie, also from the original cast), catches his eye. After a musical tete-a-tete ("Baby You Got The Job") they are -- in record (no pun intended) time -- in love, married, and with child.
Hold on again. In last year's run, Ruth and John's romance is teased out. Ruth made John work for it. Ruth made John show his vulnerable side. We saw that underneath John's arrogance and cockiness was a man of integrity with a heart of gold.
This year, without that romance, the first act reads like a business profile in Record Retailer magazine. I missed falling in love with John along with Ruth, which gets us to root for him through the troubles to come.
The second act moves more briskly, lightened by Percy Ivy (a puckish Eric B. Anthony) as an ambitious, yet less-than talented, store clerk. His comic numbers are highlights of the show. Percy is up to something (the actor gets featured billing for the role); however a little more insight into his interior character would have helped the audience prepare themselves for the plot twist that he initiates.
Another plot twist concerns John and Ruth's marriage, which hits the rocks. In the original book, John's ego led him to make a bad, bad choice during a business meeting in a night club. This time around, John's weakness is introduced almost matter-of-fact; Ruth says she "heard some things." Again, since we did not fall in love with John's golden heart from the beginning, his treatment of Ruth comes off as unsurprising, unlikable, and ho-hum.
John does transform a little when, locked in a jail cell, he wakes up to the fact that his community needs him, and he needs his community. After he is released, John redeems himself by leading a march against police harassment ("Don't Stop Now").
The last ten minutes of the show present a reformed John going about his business until his death in a tragic turn of events.
We are shocked, but given no time to grieve. The tragic scene is mined for a laugh (believe it or not), then immediately followed by a smart-alecky coda between John and Ruth. Then the grand finale: a number that tells us to forget the whole thing and "let the good times roll."
This is the real tragedy -- not letting the characters (and the audience) feel. I would have liked to see the community come together and sing (maybe a gospel version of "Open Up," John's erstwhile theme) with Ruth contributing a solo of "Lovin' John."
After all, Lovin' John is what we came to do. I hope that the next version of this show, which deserves to hit Broadway, gives us the chance to do so.
Thru August 7, 2016 @ the Kirk Douglas Theatre