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'Frozen' team premieres 'Up Here,' a quirky, pleasing, undercooked musical

'Frozen' team premieres 'Up Here,' a quirky, pleasing, undercooked musical
Betsy Wolfe charms and Matt Bittner is well-rumpled in “Up Here.” (Matthew Murphy)

On the outside, Dan, the 31-year-old computer guy with a fleshy middle, knows he comes off as "unassuming and plain." Good at math, he tells us he's 5-foot-10, 200 pounds and that 52 is the number of nights he has slept with a woman, compared with 10,916 nights spent alone.

These statistics aren't especially impressive. And when you factor in Dan's relaxed approach to fashion (untucked button-down thrown over a T-shirt), it's clear that he's just a few years away from being officially designated a schlub.

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But the outwardly ordinary protagonist of "Up Here," the pleasingly quirky if undercooked new musical by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the married songwriting team behind the Disney animated blockbuster "Frozen," has a little secret he wants to share: His mind conceals a veritable circus of oddball characters and flamboyant activity.

The production, which opened Sunday at La Jolla Playhouse under the bouncy direction of Alex Timbers, stars Matt Bittner as Dan. Bittner has just the right rumpled charisma for the role — he's appealing enough to anchor the show but not so appealing as to make the character's neurotic inner life farfetched.

Dan's unruly mental theater springs to fantastical life in the musical's rollicking opening number, which introduces us to the personification of Dan's desires and fears, everything he remembers and all that he wishes he could forget. The swirling chorus includes a carping inner critic and a die-hard optimist named Mr. Can-Do, Cool Guy and Cool Girl ("models of cool he can't touch"), and a "screaming rage-filled Maori warrior."

Dan's brain, as the lyrics of the title song "Up Here" wittily elaborate, is made more crowded by "Poetry, the pledge of allegiance/Piety, anxiety, reptilian instincts/Biology, ontology, the names of the Smurfs."

When you factor in "superego, ego and id," not to mention the color of the bike he had when he was a kid, you can't help but agree with Dan and his entourage when they collectively exclaim, "I am a miracle!"

Dan's boisterous crew makes an awkward appearance while he's on a job to fix an attractive woman's computer at her home.

Lindsay (a charming but not ludicrously so Betsy Wolfe), who recently started her own T-shirt company, offers him freshly made Rice Krispie treats. Dan senses she might like him when she tells him he doesn't need to watch his weight, but his self-esteem issues are once again paralyzing him.

Somehow he manages to invite her out for coffee, learns she takes only decaf, and promptly falls in love. Their romance is the subject of this two-act musical, which tracks the vicissitudes of a relationship that seems kissed by destiny but cursed by Dan's self-sabotaging nature.

Lopez, a co-creator of two Tony-winning blockbusters, "Avenue Q" and "The Book of Mormon," has one of the most enviable track records in musical theater today. Together with Anderson-Lopez, he won an Oscar and Grammy for the song "Let It Go," the popular anthem from "Frozen" that some of us are still trying to melt from our minds.

The score, which is the strong suit of "Up Here," seamlessly stitches together diverse Broadway pop styles.

The songs are distinguished by beautiful vocal lines and playful lyrics that aren't afraid to be silly, particularly when the gang from Dan's head pops in.

The musical numbers are most memorable, however, when they revel in character idiosyncrasies that influence the course of the plot. Excited to show Lindsay around the Museum of Natural History, Dan sings, "She'll see another side of me/In these meditative halls." But his attitude undergoes an abrupt shift after he notices the time: "Twenty one minutes late/And I'm hungry… /And I want to eat before 2:30." The give and take of dating is fine, as long as it doesn't interrupt his mealtime or disappoint him in any way.

Dan and Lindsay are going to need more than couples therapy to get them through. They need a play doctor, or better yet a playwright, who can structure their story more effectively.

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The turns in Dan and Lindsay's relationship aren't especially involving. Their love seems like a done deal from the moment they meet and, more damagingly, Lindsay's character isn't especially well drawn. While Dan's inner life is spewing on the stage, hers registers mostly as reactions to his moods.

There's a subplot involving Lindsay's brother Tim (Eric Petersen), who is apparently on the autism spectrum. He's infatuated with his former Best Buy boss, Tina (Zonya Love), who fired him, but their unorthodox love story isn't convincingly dramatized. And the duo's big number, "There's No Such Thing as the Number One," strains to make a big thematic point.

"Up Here," illustrated by scenic designer David Korins as a series of realistic cartoons, feels like a large-scale musical with minuscule drama.

The book is padded with the geological history of the rock in Central Park where the lovers regularly meet. This material is intermittently presented by a child (Giovanni Cozic) whose cuteness unfortunately can't cover up the clumsy nature of the bit.

There's also a not-wholly-convincing moment of audience participation, in which someone is recruited to serve in therapy as the stranger that Dan and Lindsay feel the other has become. This is after the two have broken up, prompting Lindsay to get back together with her obnoxious former finance guy boyfriend, Ed (Nick Verina), who naturally makes Dan insanely jealous.

This is clearly a very personal project for the show's highly successful husband-and-wife creators, but they don't yet have the necessary narrative distance.

The show bursts into life during the musical numbers, but then subsides (especially in the second act) when the story returns to dialogue.

The musical's winning conceit (now all the rage with Pixar's animated hit "Inside Out") could be more complexly developed, but Timbers (the director and book-writer of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson") exuberantly marshals the characters inside Dan's head and choreographer Joshua Bergasse sets them into kaleidoscopic motion.

A more intimate production might serve the romantic story better, but Dan's mind is an undeniable extravaganza.

Tender and outlandishly amusing at its best, "Up Here" is a work in progress that, like its protagonist, shouldn't be dismissed because of a mixed first impression.

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'Up Here'

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Where: La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 6.

Tickets: Start at $25

Info: (858) 550-1010, www.lajollaplayhouse.org

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

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