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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Breaking Through, the new musical by Cliff Downs, Katie Kahanovitz and Kirsten Guenther at the Pasadena Playhouse is a world premiere in name only. We have seen so many versions of this tale that the only things that take us by surprise are when characters behave in ways that don't make any sense. As the hungry and desperate rocker Charlie Jane, the charismatic Alison Luff, gives it everything she's got, but she's trying to power an already leaky engine.
Predictability is not the only problem here. Perhaps in their rush to pad a thin script librettist Guenther and composer/lyricists Downs and Kahanovitz distribute the musical wealth, giving bombastic self-defining songs to sketchily-drawn characters. Given the presence of mustache-twirling studio execs, sensitive craft service workers and former teen idols looking to move past their boy band reputation, the notion that we are being given a gritty, behind-the-scenes look at how the music industry works is laughable.
"I'm so close to breaking through," sings Charlie Jane in the titular opening number. She's alone on an empty stage, playing a guitar. Eventually the music amps up, the stage opens up and we see the band (led by conductor music director David O) behind her, and we hear the possibilities. The girl's got "it," but someone has to take a chance on her. Charlie's mother was a backup singer who had a brush with stardom and then flamed out and abandoned Charlie. She's still gone, and Charlie would like both to track her down and show her what she walked out on.
Amanda (Nita Whitaker), a former friend of Charlie's mom, has a position with some pull at Solo Records, but is reluctant to assist Charlie's ascent since Amanda presumably has an idea what kind of a price the young singer will pay. Eventually Amanda caves, paving the way to help Charlie to record with former boy band star Scorpio (Matt Magnusson). Solo Records President Jed Barnes (Robert W. Arbogast) starts to take an interest in Charlie. No sooner has the celebratory anthem "It's Gonna be Huge" been sung than the compromises start coming: change this, wear this, fix this, start making the rounds with this person.
In the landscape of Breaking Through as mapped out by Guenther, one is either a star on the rise or on the verge of being washed up. In either instance, regardless of your gender, you become the label's whore. Charlie might take a lesson in perspective from her roommate Gwyn (Teya Patt), except her life is a bit of a mess itself. She's having a fling with Liz (Katherine Tokarz) who is married and dodges any discussion of evaluating her relationship with Gwyn.
Downs and Kahanovitz's score is stacked with pop-laced ear-friendly songs that don't make excessive demands on the listener. The composing team has equal flair for songs with some heft and for numbers that are deliberately supposed to be Autotune pulp. Everybody, and I do mean everybody, gets an eleven o'clock belt number, from Amanda to Gwyn to Karina, a fading blues singer whose star is descending just as Charlie Jane's is soaring. Karina is played by erstwhile Janis Joplin portrayer Kacee Clanton who convincingly delivers a woman in free fall and sings the stuffing out of "Letting Go" and "Breathe in."
Karina's presence, while formulaic, is slightly less problematic than that of Scorpio who vaults from being hotter than gamma rays to the verge of worthlessness in the space of what seems like a couple of weeks. Magnusson is plenty credible (and appropriately hot when shirtless) when he's in bored, dismissive cad mode, freezing Charlie out as she performs "Can You Hear Me" for him. When the script dictates that the bad boy rocker show his softer side and offer to reform under Charlie's influence, things get soggy. It's not surprising that former Rock of Ages star Constantine Maroulis bolted, given what the part has become (although, truthfully, Maroulis might have made for a more interesting Jed Barnes, a character who could really use some shading.).
Congeniality and underdog perseverance come naturally to Luff who carries this endeavor as best she can. Songs aside, the role does not seem to challenge her greatly. The twists of fate come too easily and too predictably and we rarely see Charlie Jane chafe against them. In this rock musical which does not rock, "breaking through" proves ultimately to be less of a barrier than breaking cliche.