Closing out the San Francisco Playhouse’s 2020-2021 season is Starting Here, Starting Now, comprised of 24 songs with lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and music by David Shire. The lively and upbeat musical review was originally created to save the Manhattan Theater Club’s then-new nightclub space. The songs are taken from shows that either never got produced or closed prematurely, so they have that familiar-yet-not feel. Maltby directed the original production while Shire shored up the work with newly created connective tissue. Performed in this instance by a cast of four (one more than the original production) the show is an often humorous exploration of relationships of various dimensions, some made modern with a gender-bending twist. Each piece is sung in character — though those change throughout — so they require solid actors to make them work. Equally important to their success is the jazzy trio, placed behind them right on the stage.
Directed by Susi Damilano with choreography by Nicole Helfer, this incarnation moves breezily along for 90 minutes not including intermission. Though the cast members are all seasoned performers, it is Keith Pinto who demonstrates the most strength from his perfect articulation of rapid lyrics to his physical antics and sincere engagement with the audience. He elicits laughs in We Can Talk to Each Other and knowing nods in I Don’t Remember Christmas. Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who won the Tony Award for his turn as Angel in Rent, provides a gentler and more touching tone in solos including A Girl Should Know. Rinabeth Apostol adds bad ass energy in I’m Going to Make You Beautiful and several duets. Melissa Wolfklain rounds out the ensemble with quick wit, though she sometimes missed a note. (She sings my favorite in the line-up, Crossword Puzzle.)
Costume designer Rachael Heiman has wisely outfitted the cast elegantly in pure white, the better to project whatever is needed as they move swiftly from character to character. The set designed by Heather Kenyon has a touch of nightclub flair, especially as lit by Kurt Landisman in an array of rainbow shades. The musical trio, under the musical direction of David Dobrusky on piano with Amanda Wu on bass and Russ Gold handling percussion, is top notch and well suited to sharing the spotlight.
Like aural chicken soup for your tired soul, Starting Here, Starting Now goes down easy and leaves a warm feeling behind. There is no twisted plot to follow or deep roles to keep straight, just pleasing harmonies, light movement, and plenty of charm. It is playing at the San Francisco Playhouse at 450 Post Street in San Francisco with strict COVID-19 protocols in place ( https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/covid-safety/. ) It is also available to stream online, which is how I was able to enjoy it all the way in New York City. Tickets are available for either format at sfplayhouse.org for performances though October 2. In-person tickets are $30-$100; with access to the On Demand video starting at $15.
Danny — a spunky young Puerto Rican musician with a knack for creating earworms — uploads his diss track poking fun at pop phenom Ryan Reed.Stumbling across the piece, the blocked Ms. Reed isn’t so hurt that she can’t seize the opportunity to steal Danny’s best song and recorded it for her new album.Their heated decisions set in motion Original Sound, an engaging and emotional play with music by Adam Seidel. The events were inspired by his previous job as a Chicago-based hip-hop journalist.In order to keep his work to a tight 95 minutes, Seidel can’t completely avoid the inclusion of music industry tropes.Anyone who keeps up with that world will see echoes of recent headlines, from the cathartic 22-years-in-the-making Verve settlement to the unexpected collaboration of Lil Nas X with Billy Ray Cyrus to gain acceptance in a different genre.Yet Seidel also skillfully mines even more interesting territory covering the potentially destructive role of power in the creative process.What happens when your so-called self-expression is no longer your own?
Jane Bruce and Sebastian Chacon in Original Sound; photo by Russ Rowland
The strong back beat of the plot is built atop the complex relationship that develops between Danny and Ryan.Neither is completely in the wrong, which sets up a fascinating dynamic.The supporting characters each heighten important story elements.Danny’s sister Felicia attempts to be supportive.He more easily receives encouragement from his friend Kari, a business school dropout who strives to keep him safe in an exploitative industry.Ryan is backed by her well-intentioned manager Jake and a team of unseen studio producers and executives.A sign of the script’s sophistication is that it is possible to experience both hope and sadness at the end of their shared journey.
Sebastian Chacon brings genuine warmth and exuberance to Danny.(It is fitting to witness the young actor leave the theater with headphones on and a skateboard tucked under his arm.) He is beautifully balanced by singer-songwriter and actress Jane Bruce’s Ryan, by turns stubborn, guarded, and freed by music.Anthony Arkin plays Jake with credible matter-of-factness.Countering is Lio Mehiel’s sensitive interpretation of Kari, though it seems a missed opportunity not to present the character as non-binary. The production’s shortcoming is not providing Cynthia Bastidas and Wilson Jermaine Heredia enough to work with in their critical turns as Danny’s sister and father.
Director Elena Araoz generally keeps the energy high, all the better to shock the audience with quieter moments. The spirited scene is set by Justin Townsend, who cleverly echoes the look of LPsfurther enhanced by lighting designer Kate McGee’s dance floor elements.An array of imaginative t-shirts and power booties are provided by Sarita Fellows.But it is the music that appropriately takes center stage in the production’s design. Both Chacon and Bruce perform the songs live.The catchy hits are written by Daniel Ocanto, Ms. Bruce and Mr. Seidel.An improvised solo was originally created by musical artist Armen Dolelian from diverse influences.Additional sound design is provided by Nathan Leigh.
Like a tune recorded by multiple artists, each player in Original Sound goes through variations of their own central theme.It makes for a stirring experience for lovers of emerging works.Original Sound plays through June 8th in The Studio at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village.Set 3/4 round in this small house, there are no bad seats.Tickets are $55-$85 and are available by visiting CherryLaneTheatre.org, by calling 866-811-4111 or by visiting the Cherry Lane Theatre Box Office.