Review: ‘The Green Room’ at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse

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A bright, beaming cherub of a fledgling musical, ‘The Green Room’ at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse depicts the backstage aspirations and tribulations of four theater majors at a small Midwestern university. As such, the show is pretty much defined by the exuberance as well as the self-absorption that goes with a stage of life before the onset of adult responsibilities. Think ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ -- without the rolling.

For the show’s limited-run premiere, director Stephanie Coltrin cast an age-appropriate quartet of talented and energetic singers to tackle composer-lyricist Chuck Pelletier’s skillfully crafted score.

Refinements since the workshop-production CD released in 2005 are apparent from the gutsier, more hard-driving opening title number celebrating the traditional performers’ waiting room in which the piece is set -- a metaphorical cocoon for lives awaiting liftoff.

The characters are a clearly defined if somewhat arbitrary cross-section of students in their early 20s, grappling with academic challenges, emerging sexuality, overblown relationship traumas, and grandiose career ambitions. Amid occasional studying and rehearsals for religious-themed musicals, pretty, squeaky-clean Anna (Stephanie Burkett Gerson) struggles to overcome her defenses with freewheeling new boyfriend John (Zane Gerson). Her younger brother Cliff (Michael J. Willett) explores his uncertain sexual orientation with wannabe diva Divonne (Jessica Gisin).

The combination of youth and ambition in these characters conspires to make narcissism the show’s dominant theme, celebrated with breezy wit and irony. ‘The question’s not what I think of you,’ chirps Anna in a confessional ballad, ‘But what do I think of me?’ When Cliff learns he may have knocked up Divonne, his only response is uninhibited pride in the potency of his sperm in the hilarious show-stopper, ‘Nothing Can Stop My Boys.’ In the show’s quintessential anthem to egoism, ‘It’s All About Me,’ Gisin’s Divonne re-imagines her minor roles as the focal point of the various productions she’s been in.

Under Pelletier’s musical direction, the live four-piece band spans a satisfying range of musical styles despite a suboptimal sound system. A rockin’, guitar-heavy ‘Bachelor’s Anthem’ is one of several songs following in the footsteps of late ‘Rent’ creator Jonathan Larson, while ‘The All-You-Wanna-Do-is-Do-Me Blues’ lives up to its name with deadpan soulfulness.

The weak link is the book by C. Stephen Foster and Rod Damer, which threads Pelletier’s songs with the slenderest throughlines at the expense of coherence if it advances a song (Cliff starts out a year behind the others but graduates at the same time, simply to serve a plot point).

There isn’t much in the way of character evolution or life lessons here. Making an irreverent pitch to college-age viewers at a do-or-die time for a genre desperately seeking to replenish a graying audience, this agreeable albeit lightweight show is admittedly an imperfect fit for this large and formal venue (at which its target demographic seemed few and far between). Nevertheless, the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities deserves kudos for nurturing emerging talent and generational continuity.

-- Philip Brandes

‘The Green Room,’ Hermosa Beach Playhouse, 710 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach. 8 tonight through Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $40-50. (310) 372-4477. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

Photo, from left: Stephanie Burkett Gerson, Zane Gerson, Jessica Gisin and Michael J. Willett. Credit: Alysa Brennan.