Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

Up Here
La Jolla Playhouse

Matt Bittner and Betsy Wolfe
There's a lot of talent on display in the La Jolla Playhouse world premiere production of Up Here. I just wish all that talent served a better piece of musical theatre.

Starting at the top, we have Robert Lopez, who is the youngest person to have achieved EGOT status—that is, he's won at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award. And spouse Kristen Anderson-Lopez has teamed with Mr. Lopez on arguably the best known project, songs for the Disney film, Frozen, including the Oscar and Grammy-winning "Let It Go." They have written the score and the book for Up Here.

There are two big names behind the scenes as well: Alex Timbers (Broadway's Peter and the Starcatcher, Rocky, and Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson) directs and Joshua Bergasse (Broadway's On the Town) choreographs.

The result of this collaboration is a big, bright, and tuneful piece of cleverly staged and creatively choreographed fluff. If you love looking endlessly at shiny objects, this is the show for you. Dramatically, though, there are laughs at the expense of Millennials, some moments that may move, and some characters to care about, but none of them add up to much of anything.

The two musicals for which Mr. Lopez is best known, Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, both focus on 20-somethings who are uncertainly finding their way in unfamiliar terrain. Up Here modifies that formula to focus on 30-somethings who are trying to navigate the always unfamiliar terrain of a romantic relationship. In some ways, the Up Here characters are akin to the ten-years-later version of the Avenue Q characters. They are still finding their way, and they've made lives for themselves that aren't ideal but allow them to get by. They've gone through enough hard knocks to be unwilling just to dive in when opportunity arises.

It's not stated explicitly, but I imagine that these characters are also at a point where their friends are pairing up for real and there's pressure for them to do so, too, or risk remaining single. Because this point isn't explicit, though, the only stakes in the primary romantic relationship are the ones in each character's mind.

Which, maybe, is the point. The story focuses on Dan (Matt Bittner), an Average Joe who has his own computer repair business and loves to draw and do computer animation on the side. Dan meets Lindsay (Betsy Wolfe) when he fixes her laptop, and a relationship begins. Lindsay is attractive, personable, but wounded. She's just getting a tee shirt design business off the ground. She also has an ex named Ed (Nick Verina), who is still hovering.

Dan has a noisy set of thoughts bouncing around in his head. These thoughts are represented by characters on stage, and while a number of these characters are shape shifters (dancing cactuses, anyone?), there is a group that are consistent in both form and function. Only one of these is a positive force—Mr. Can-Do (Devin Ratray)—and he's more than a little over the top for comfort. The other four are called Dark Forces: Humbug (Devere Rogers), who specializes in sarcasm; Critic (Jeff Hiller), who provides negative information tailored for any situation; and Cool Guy (Andrew Call) and Cool Girl (Gizel Jimenez), who serve to remind Dan that he is definitely not.

Lindsay also has a brother named Tim (Eric Petersen). Tim is described as probably "on the spectrum" and "weird," but Lindsay loves him, even though he has a way of insinuating himself into her life at moments when she'd rather not have him there. Tim is also in love with Tina (Zonya Love), a former boss who fired him for an inappropriate attitude toward customer service when he kept insisting that "There's No Such Thing As The Number One." Now, Tim is actually correct, from a mathematical standpoint, and he has a song by that title to prove it, but I'll be darned if I could figure out how he's right.

Finally, there is a child (nine-year-old Giovanni Cozic) who keeps popping up. The child seems to be giving a school report on a particular rock, a rock that turns out to be Lindsay's favorite place to retreat and think. Who the child is eventually becomes clear, but audiences probably will have figured out the answer to that mystery by the time it is revealed.

Mr. Timbers and Mr. Bergasse keep everyone and everything in Dan's head moving, often in outlandishly creative ways. The shape shifters appear in costumes galore (courtesy of Ann Closs-Farley), there are a lot of shiny objects (courtesy of David Korins' scenic design, David J. Winer's lighting design and Dan Scully's projection design), and even puppets (cleverly designed by Michelle Zamora). The songs, with such titles as "Downward Spiral," "Happy Go Lucky," "Dragon Coaster," and "Don't You Just Hate Dan?" support these episodes nicely. The romantic songs, on the other hand, tend toward being power ballads. You may like that sort of thing. My tolerance for them is limited.

At heart, though, there's not much to the story. Dan and Lindsay connect, disconnect, and connect again. There's a lot going on in Dan's head, but the Dark Forces never change their tune and continue to outnumber Mr. Can-Do four to one. Lindsay reacts to how Dan ends up acting, but what's in her head is never evident. It would have been terrific to know what kind of cacophony she had going on "up there," too.

It was telling that, when the shape shifters had gotten low on gas and the story started to wear thin, someone a couple of rows in front of me turned on a mobile device to stare at its shiny screen.

There may well be a successful piece of musical theatre amidst all of the creativity currently on display at the La Jolla Playhouse, but it will take a lot of work after this version closes on September 6 to find it.

Through September 6, 2015, Tuesday/Wednesday at 7:30pm; Thursday/Friday/Saturday at 8:00pm; Sun at 7:00pm; Sat/Sun at 2:00pm at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037. Tickets available by calling (858) 550-1010; or online at

La Jolla Playhouse presents Up Here, book, music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. Director: Alex Timbers; Choreographer: Joshua Bergasse; Music Director: Aron Accurso; Scenic Design: David Korins; Orchestrations: Dave Metzger; Costume Design: Ann Closs-Farley; Puppet Designer: Michelle Zamora; Lighting Design: David J. Weiner; Dramaturg: Gabriel Greene; Sound Design: Peter Hylenski; Casting: Carrie Garnder; Projection Designer: Dan Scully; Stage Manager: Matthew DiCarlo.

Cast: Matt Bittner, Andrew Call, Giovanni Cozic, Jeff Hiller, Gizel Jimenez, Zonya Love, Sarah Meahl, Eric Petersen, Devin Ratray, Devere Rogers, Charles South, Nick Verina, and Betsy Wolfe. Ensemble: Kikau Alvaro, N'Jameh Camara, Hanz Enyeart, Jacob Haren, April Jo Henry, Zakiyah Markland, Lorena Martinez, Tamara Rodriguez and Graham Stevens.

Photo: Matthew Murphy

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie

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