That Orange County Sound 🎭 “That Lovin’ Feelin'” @ Group Rep

That Lovin' Feein' (Group Rep Theatre @ Lonnie Chapman)userpic=theatre_ticketsWhen you think about great rock groups that emerged from that teen-age rock incubator that was Orange County in the early 1960s, what comes to mind? That surfin’ sound? Sorry, the Beach Boys were actually out of Hawthorne.  Rock and roll? Nope, the Turtles were out of Westchester HS. Pop? Nope, the Carpenters were actually out of Downey, at the edge of LA County. The answer — which I didn’t know going into That Lovin’ Feelin’ at The Group Rep (FB)  last night — was the R&B sound of The Righteous Brothers (FB). The Righteous Brothers was formed when bands of two Orange County youth, Bill Medley out of Santa Ana and Bobby Hatfield out of Anaheim, came together; after some whittling down, the result was an R&B duo that made history by being a group that sounded too black for the white stations of the time, and that were too white for the black stations of the time.

That Lovin’ Feelin’ , which is running at The Group Rep (FB) through January 24, 2016 (actually, February 21, 2016, after two extensions), tells the story of the formation of the band, its struggles through the years, its successes, its splits, its reunions, and the final reconciliation. At its heart, though, That Lovin’ Feelin’ is a jukebox musical, an excuse to revisit the music of The Righteous Brothers.

Playwright James A. Zimmerman developed the story out of a personal relationship with Bill Medley (FB) (Personal Site) of the Righteous Brothers, combined with information from an autobiography that Medley wrote. Zimmerman told this story by framing the jukebox musical with a scaffolding of a reporter from Western Michigan at a 2003 conference conducting an interview with Bill Medley for the school paper. During this interview, he gives her the press release version of the story. As she pushes him harder and harder, eventually the real story of the reasons for the breakups and the reunions come out. This scaffolding provides the bones to expose the story of the group, and the excuse to go through some of their better known hits and songs in chronological order.

When viewed as a book musical, the story is weak. This isn’t to say that the conflicts inherent in the Righteous Brothers history aren’t theatrical. The problem is that the manner of the story telling doesn’t really place the burden of telling the actual story on Bill and Bobby. The burden of the exposition is placed on the 2003 version of Bill Medley and the reporter, Ali. In between the expositions we get flashbacks of history with the younger versions of Bill and Bobby, and characters in their life. While we’re in the flashbacks, the older Bill and Ali just freeze on stage. This structure reduces the product to “and then I performed this… and here is what was happening in my life then…. and then I performed that… and here’s what was happening in my life then. This is just a dry exposition that is saved only by the charisma and talent of the performers.

That Lovin' Feelin' (Publicity Photos)I think what is disappointing is the missed potential in the story — in letting Bill and Bobby, and the people in their lives, re-enact and tell throughout instead of in snippets, of letting us see the growth of the characters in the characters themselves, and not by having a third character tell us. That is not to say that the scaffold is bad — for it certainly wasn’t. Rather, it could just have been so much more: a true dramatic story. On the other hand, a similar scaffolding of having a character tell the story worked for Jersey Boys, so one can see why they thought it would work here.

What truly elevates That Lovin’ Feelin’ over the exposition are the performances — in particular the performances of the younger versions of the Righteous Brothers. We’ll get to them in a minute; first, let’s talk about our expository duo: Paul Cady (FB) as the older Bill Medley, and Sarah Karpeles (FB) as Ali (who has a last name given in the show but now the program). Cady, who also served as the Music Director, conveys the elder Medley with comfortable realism. He has a lovely singing voice which, alas, you only hear in three songs. However, I found myself watching Karpeles more — even when I probably wasn’t supposed to be watching her. She had a relaxed and humorous nature about her that just was projected by her character. I particularly enjoyed her smiling through the music at a number of points — this was likely the only concession she could show to liking the music, given the nature of the “freezes” that she and Cady had to endure.

What was blowing Karpeles away blew the audience away as well: the performances of Morgan Lauff (FB) as the younger Bill Medley and Brenden MacDonald (FB) as Bobby Hatfield. These two recent college graduations gave spectacular performances, capturing not only the drama of the persona they were inhabiting, but singing with style and strong telant. Not being an expert on the Righteous Brothers, I can’t speak to whether they sounded like the originals. But Lauff seemed to be able to do a great job with Medley’s low notes, and MacDonald seemed to easily reach Hatfield’s high notes. All I know is that I enjoyed their singing, and isn’t that enough.

Sometimes, things off to the side or behind catch my eye or ear. For example, in the Beatles “When I’m Sixty-Four”, I find myself listening to the back clarinet or bass sometimes. That happened here at one point, where the actresses who were playing backup singers just caught my eye: Nicole Renee Chapman (FB) [Actress 1, Joy Hatfield, Donna Thomas]; Amanda Dawn Harrison (FB) [Actress 2, Julie Stedham, Cher, Lucinda Chatfield]; and Brooke Van Grinsven (FB) [Actress 3, Karen Medley]. The first one to draw my attention was Chapman, who just seemed to be radiating “fun” out of her backup singer character, and then again when we saw her as Joy Hatfield. She was having the time of her life dancing and singing, and that joy was just beaming out to the audience. Also being was Van Grinsven, who we have seen before in Bard Fiction and The Drowsy Chaperone. She continued her winning streak here, also radiating the fact that she was having a great time with this character. Again, very strong singing, dancing, and performance. In fact, during some of the later numbers, if you listened closely, you could hear that both Chapman and Van Grinsven had powerhouse voices (which, now realizing that we saw Van Grinsven in Drowsey, should have been no surprise). Harrison rounded out the trio. She didn’t impact me as much, but I think that’s because of her positioning on the stage, which was usually in the middle, putting her being other characters when viewed from a seat near the aisle. I enjoyed her portrayal as Karen, and I also enjoyed her dancing, and I thought I could pick out both her voice and the fun she was having the few times I could see her behind the Lauff and MacDonald.

Rounding out the cast were some non-singing male roles: Robert Axelrod (FB) [who in addition to playing Bass in the band, as Actor 3, Dusty Hanvey, and John Wimber]; Patrick Burke/FB [Actor 1, Phil Spector, David Cohen]; Timm Damiano/FB [Tim]; and J. Christopher Sloan (FB) [Actor 2, Ray Maxwell, Jerry Perenchio, Doctor]. All seemed to inhabit the characters who they were playing well. I’dll single out Axelrod here, primarily because he had a look that reminded me of my maternal grandfather, which brought back some very nice memories. He also played a mean bass :-).

That Lovin’ Feelin’ was directed by Jules Aaron, assisted by Michele Bernath (FB) (who also served as Choreographer).  This was one of those shows where I couldn’t really sense the director’s presence, which is a good thing. The actors seemed to be having fun inhabiting their roles, and they seemed to be naturally in their personas. I do find interesting the fact that the director is working on a Sammy Davis Jr. musical (I Will, I Can!) — now there is a story worth musicalizing and something I would definately go see. The choreography by Michele Bernath was good — alas, I don’t remember if the dance moves from the 1960s were accurate, as I wasn’t watching dance that closely then. They seemed right; my only question is whether the same moves and clothes would be used by backup singers for 60s acts in the 1970s and 1980s.

Rounding out the onstage performers was the onstage band, which was sponsored by F. Murray Abraham and Kate Abraham. The band was led by Richard Levinson (FB), who also did a wonderful job on the keyboard. The aforementioned Robert Axelrod (FB) was rocking away on the bass, with Bill Scott (FB) next to him on the guitar. Rounding out the on-stage band was Lance Crow/FB on drums. Overall, the band had a great rockin’ sound; it was especially fun to hear them solo on the playout after the bows.

Moving on to the production and creative credits. The set design by Chris Winfield (FB) was simple: a performance stage with a pull-out substage, a dressing room off to the side,  and some decorative effects. It wasn’t as realistic as some, but served its purpose to support the action. What created sense of place were the projections, which were either uncredited, done by the set designer, done by Doug Haverty (FB) the graphic designer, or done by J. Kent Inasy (FB), the lighting designer. Whoever did them, they worked well given the large variety of locations in this show and the budget size of intimate theatre. Other lighting worked well to establish mood in a way that wasn’t obtrusive. The costume design by Angela M. Eads (FB) worked well for the most part, although my wife had two minor quibbles from what she remembers from the era. The make-up, hair, and wigs of Judi Lewin (FB) also seemed appropriately period, and the transition between the large number of wigs worked well. The sound design of Steve Shaw (FB) was what a sound design should be: realistic and unobtrusive, although there was a little microphone noise. Nora Feldman did the public relations. The stage manager was not credited, but Timm Damiano/FB  was the assistant stage manager. That Lovin’ Feelin’ was presented by The Group Rep (FB), and produced by Doug Haverty (FB) and Larry Eisenberg (FB).

That Lovin’ Feelin’ was originally scheduled to close January 24, 2016, but has been extended until February 21, 2016. Tickets are available through The Group Rep (FB) box office (which is by phone or email, sigh). Discount tickets may be available on Goldstar (they are almost sold out as of now); they may also be available through LA Stage Tix. Into early February, That Lovin’ Feelin’ is running in repertory with A. R. Gurney’s Another Antigone, which is running in GRT’s new 2nd stage upstairs.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at two theatres:  The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). In 2015, my intimate theatre subscription was at REP East (FB), although they haven’t indicated a 2016 season yet, and I may move the subscription to The Group Rep (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: Theatre continues next week with  Zombie Joes Underground (FB)’s 50 Hour Drive-By Theatre Festival on Saturday, January 23, and “Stomp” at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB)  on Sunday, January 24. The next weekend brings “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on January 30. February starts on Saturday, February 6 with Empire: The Musical at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) — this gives us not only the chance to see a dear friend (Sheri F.) who doesn’t attend as much LA theatre as she used to, but a favorite performer (Kevin Earley). The next day brings “An Act of God” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). There’s a rare mid-week performance on February 9 of The Jason Moran Fats Waller Dance Party at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). The following weekend brings the Southern California premiere of the musical Dogfight at the Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim Hills.  The third weekend in February is currently open, but that is likely to change. February closes with The Band of the Royal Marines and the Pipes, Drums, and Highland Dancers of the Scots Guards at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). March brings “Another Roll of the Dice” at The Colony Theatre (FB), and has two potential dates on hold for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) (pending Hottix).  There is also the open question of whether there will be Repertory East Playhouse (“the REP”) (FB) 2016 season, and when it will start.  If we have no REP season, I’ll likely subscribe at Group Rep — call it the Law of Conservation of REP).  As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.