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Review

'Breaking Through' falls into cliched musical traps at Pasadena Playhouse

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic

An appealing cast and some gorgeous singing enliven "Breaking Through," a new musical about an old subject — the music industry's uncanny knack for destroying the talent it packages for fleeting fame.

But the show, which opened Sunday at the Pasadena Playhouse in a production directed by Sheldon Epps, recycles all the old plot lines that have built up over the years in popular culture, from the musical "Dreamgirls" to the current TV sensation "Empire."

These clichés no doubt reflect the perennial domination of the suits over the singers, but it's curious that the authors here — Kirsten Guenther wrote the book, and Cliff Downs and Katie Kahanovitz wrote the score — barely acknowledge that the music business has undergone tectonic shifts in the digital era.

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For Charlie Jane (a winning Alison Luff), the singer-songwriter protagonist who only wants to sing songs straight from her wounded soul, it might as well be 1972 all over again. Joni Mitchell is her god, though Sheryl Crow seems to be a more relevant role model.

It's a little hard to tell exactly what kind of guitar-strumming soloist Charlie is because the songs she performs early on all have to do with her desire to be a star. In the opening number, "Breaking Through," she confides, "To sing this song for you/I'm so close to breaking through/Someday soon I'll make the world believe/Got something to say and I'm not afraid of anything."

And in "Can You Hear Me?," the first-act number that's meant to reveal Charlie's authenticity, she tears herself open to say, "I write about truth, I sing about pain/Keep chasin' the storm through the pouring rain/I grab my guitar, turn it up loud/Thinking one day that I'll make Mama proud."

We come to know Charlie not so much through her art as through her desired image of herself as an artist. This is symptomatic of a larger problem in "Breaking Through," which too often relies on telling us what to think and feel rather than embodying it dramatically.

Charlie's missing-in-action mama, by the way, was a successful singer herself for a time, until drugs and alcohol capsized her faltering career. She's been out of Charlie's life for years, a ghostly absence and a frightening object lesson influencing her daughter's every apprehensive step.

Will Charlie, knowing all that can go wrong, fall into the same traps as her mother? When we meet her, she's been rejected by every label in town save one, Solo Records, where her mother's former best friend, Amanda (a gracefully confident Nita Whitaker), is some kind of mover and shaker.

Charlie's identity is strong, but obscurity has made her vulnerable. Amanda pairs her with the label's current hot star, Scorpio (Matt Magnusson), a Justin Timberlake type trying to shake off his early boy-band image. This meeting launches a series of Faustian bargains that will eventually make Charlie unrecognizable even to her best friend, Gwyn (Teya Patt), the one person committed to telling her the truth.

The production, which plays out on an unengaging set by John Iacovelli resembling a cheesy Las Vegas nightclub act, keeps assembling the characters into corny theatrical arrangements. Tyce Diorio's choreography is particularly hackneyed, with dance sequences evoking TV variety show routines from 40 years ago.

Downs and Kahanovitz have created a score with a pleasant pop sound that allows the vocalists to soar, but their inexperience as musical theater writers reveals itself in the way the songs keep spelling out aspects of the characters that are already understood. The lyrics double-down on the obvious, and a few numbers seem shoehorned in just to give a performer a turn in the spotlight.

The cast redeems the material as best it can. Kacee Clanton, who alternated as the lead in "A Night With Janis Joplin" both on Broadway and at Pasadena Playhouse, has a luscious powerhouse voice that instantly raises the pulse of the production every time her character, Karina, a star quickly losing her bankability, drunkenly staggers onto the stage to haunt the other singers with her sorry story.

Magnusson can't compare with Timberlake, but he makes Scorpio a more multi-dimensional figure than he might otherwise seem. Patt's Gwyn adds a refreshing note to the role of the comic sidekick badly in need of self-esteem, but the clumsy romantic subplot with her closeted lesbian boss, Liz (Katherine Tokarz), seems designed simply to give Gwyn her big Act 2 number, "Do Without You."

Will Collyer lends Smith, the craft services worker who makes a touchingly ordinary amorous connection with Charlie, an attractive humility. Robert W. Arbogast provides just the right dollop of arrogance for Jed, Solo Records' ruthless head honcho. Whitaker subtly hints that there's some genuine humanity under Amanda's corporate bravado.

Naturally, Luff is the show's centerpiece, and the beauty of her singing and the warmth of her stage presence make it easy to sympathize with Charlie even after she has signed over her soul. Her heart nobly holds out. Too bad the shortcomings of "Breaking Through" don't allow this talented performer to have a truly convincing breakthrough moment on Pasadena Playhouse's stage.

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'Breaking Through'

Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Nov. 22.

Tickets: $25 to $87

Contact: (626) 356-7529, www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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