People think of Hollywood as this liberal community, but is it really? There is often this image of Hollywood as accepting and full of gay actors, but is it really? Does the public accept gay actors in major action adventure roles? What would happen if a major action adventure actor (think an Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis type) were to be revealed as gay–what would happen to their career (for a clue, look at the recent kerfluffle over John Travolta)? These are the questions asked by a new musical, “Justin Love“ (FB), we saw yesterday afternoon at The Celebration Theatre in West Hollywood. Short summary: Interesting questions, and an interesting exploration of the subject that generally worked well. You can see some pictures from the production in this article from LA Stage Times.
“Justin Love” (book by Patricia Cotter (FB) and David Elzer (FB), story by David Elzer and Bret Calder) tells the story of Justin Rush (Adam Huss (FB)*), one of Hollywood’s most popular action-adventure actors. Justin is married to Amanda Bell (Carrie St. Louis (FB)+), a beautiful actress; and their 5 year marriage is constantly in the public eye. It also tells the story of Chris Andrews (Tyler Ledon (FB)), a young man newly arrived in Hollywood from Michigan; Chris came out as gay to his parents in High School, and has come to Hollywood to be a writer. In short order, Chris finds an apartment with a roommate/boyfriend, Donovan (Terrance Spencer (FB)*) and a temp job working for a publicist. In fact, he isn’t working for any publicist but for Justin’s publicist, Buck Ralston (Alet Taylor (FB)*), a demanding woman who chews through staff assistants. Having just fired the latest crop of assistants, Buck promotes Chris from Temp to Assistant. Adding to the stress is the fact that Donovan has a new boyfriend, Syd (Grant Jordan (FB)*), and is not only having trysts in the apartment, but has convinced Chris to let both Donovan and Syd stay in the apartment.
Trouble begins when Justin arrives early for an appointment with Buck, and while reading lines, begins to be attracted to Chris. The feeling is mutual, and the two begin to date. Meanwhile, Amanda has bumped into one of the paparazzi, Mitch Matthews (Ciarán McCarthy (FB)*), who turns out to have (a) been attracted to her and (b) attended the same high school. The two relationships continue to grow and mature, until one night when the two couples bump into each other at Justin’s mansion. After some awkward moments, they separate, but not before Mitch takes a picture of Justin and Chris. Justin and Chris return to Chris’ apartment, where they bump into Donovan and Syd… who also take a picture, and just send it to one friend. Of course, the picture goes viral, and the rumor mill starts. Buck attempts to damp down the rumors, which destroys two real relationships while preserving the image of Justin and Amanda that the world demands. But does it? Will true love triumph in the end? Will the pubic accept it? [You probably know the answer, given that this is a musical, after all]
Looking at the story alone, I found it very compelling. It was well-written, and quickly drew the audience into caring about the characters and the relationships. I found myself thinking that this story would be effective even without the music, which is the sign of a well-written book. The story exhibited good character growth for all the major characters, each having their own distinct obstacles and arc to deal with. The story also included many highly topical and recent references, which highlighted the fact that the story is one that could be playing out today. Although those references added to the entertainment, keeping them up to date may prove difficult as the production solidifies over its lifetime. Also entertaining was the over-the-top portrayal of the publicist, Buck. Actually, I’m not sure whether it is over-the-top or realistic, given that one of the authors of Justin Love, David Elzer, is a major publicist in the Los Angeles theatre scene. Quite likely, he knows of which he writes — which makes the publicist’s portrayal even scarier as it is realistic! I’ll also note that Elzer’s experiences as a gay member of the Hollywood community provide significant coloration and experience to the story, providing the underlying truth that makes this story so effective.
If there was any weakness in the production, it was in the musicalization. I haven’t quite put my finger on the exact problem, but I do know that part of it was technical (which is discussed below). Setting that aside, I think that a minor problem with the music (by Lori Scarlett (FB)) and the lyrics (by Lori Scarlett (FB) and David Manning) was a perceived lack of variety. I say perceived because I think the problem was more the orchestration (by John Ballinger (FB)) than the actual music and lyrics. The small number of instruments and the lack of any brass made all the songs sound similar, even though a closer listen showed that not to be the case. This was a bit more of a problem in Act I due to the technical problem. There were a number of songs that were quite good: I was particularly taken with “The Light I See In You” and “Don’t Shit Where You Eat” in Act II, the closing “Hollywood Ending” number, and “Chasing the Story” and “Downey High” in Act I. Also hilarious was the Act II opening number, “When Your Love is New”, which had more fairy wings than a day at the Ren Faire, except that these were appropriate.
The performances in “Justin Love” were top-notch. The director, Michael Matthews (FB)**, did a great job of working with the actors to bring all the characters to life. The only directoral flaw was an artifact of the performance venue, where the audiences is seated on the sides as well as in front of the actors. For those on the side, much of the action (and a fair bit of the dialogue) was lost. The production would have been superb on a proscenium stage, so some minor directorial adjustments need to be made for Celebration’s thrust-stage layout.
However, as I said, the acting was great. In the leading tier of actors were Adam Huss (FB)* as Justin Rush, Tyler Ledon (FB) as Chris Andrews, and Alet Taylor (FB)* as Buck Ralson. This was our first time seeing Huss — he gave a wonderfully effective portrayal of Justin, making Justin believable as a normal guy in an artificial world, discovering who he wants to be, what he wants out of life, and how he wants to get there. He could sing and dance well, and was fun to watch. We’d seen Ledon before in “The Robber Bridegroom“, and he was very effective here as well. You could see that he enjoyed this role. He did a great job of bringing Chris to life — a midwestern boy new to love and the Hollywood rat race and artificiality. Again, he was a strong singer and dancer as well. We particularly get to see the strong singing of these two men in the number “The Light I See In You”. Taylor is a regular on the LA Theatre scene — we’ve seen her at ICT, NoHo Arts, and Cabrillo, and she is great in everything she is in. Her character here is very strong willed and bitchy, and she pulls that off quite well. Her singing and dancing are great, and are best seen in the “Don’t Shit Where You Eat” number.
In the supporting tier of actors were Carrie St. Louis (FB)+ as Amanda Bell, Ciarán McCarthy (FB)* as Mitch Matthews, Terrance Spencer (FB)* as Donovan (and others), and Grant Jordan (FB)* as Syd (and others). I was particularly smitten by St. Louis’ Amanda: she was lovely and personable, and just seemed to be a normal person trapped in a world that exploded around her far too fast. She played well off of McCarthy’s Mitch, making the two a believable couple. Furthermore, you could tell these two actors were just having fun with their roles — this is something I like to see and something that the audience feeds off of. They sang well, particularly in the “Downey High” number. We haven’t seen St. Louis or McCarthy before, but I do hope to see them again on LA stages. Spencer and Jordan seemed to be more of a comic relief duo (in particular Jordan). This runs the risk of being overdone, but these two did it perfectly (at points, in fact, seeming making the other actors chuckle). A cute playful couple, especially in Jordan’s use of stereotypical and colorful phrases. We have seen Spencer before in Twist at the Pasadena Playhouse, and he put his great dancing skills to good use in this performance as well. Jordan was very good with the comedy timing.
Rounding out the cast in smaller roles and ensemble positions were Afton Quast (FB)* as Sue (and others), Gina Torrecilla (FB)* as Mary Price (and others), Travis Leland (FB)+ as Lou (and others), Sabrina Miller (FB)* (Ensemble), and Adam Joseph Reich (FB)* (Ensemble). All were strong and seemed to be enjoying being in this production. Quast and Torrecilla especially seemed to be having fun as the “hosts” of ET-type programs. As I’ve been noting who we’ve seen before, we can add Miller (who we saw in Cabrillo’s Guys and Dolls), Reich (Cabaret at REP East), and Leland (Adding Machine at Odyssey).
(*: Member of Actor’s Equity; +: Member of Actor’s Equity Membership Candidate Program; **: Member of Stage Directors and Choreographers Society; ***: Member of United Scenic Artists)
The choreography by Janet Roston (FB) (assisted by Jackie Hinton (FB)) used the small space quite well, and was very effective in numbers such as “Chasing the Story” and “Don’t Shit Where You Eat”. The onstage (but behind scenery) band was under the musical direction of Gregory Nabours (FB). The band consisted of Nabours on keyboard, J. J. Brown on bass, Brian Cannady/FB on drums, and David Lee on guitar. The size of the band was obviously constrained by the production limitations, but this production would be improved by a greater variety of instrumentation (in particular, brass and winds) and more variety in the orchestration. Additionally, for those seated on the side (as we were, seemingly in front of the keyboard), the volume of the band often made it difficult to hear the lyrics. This was likely a sound-balance problem and may improve over the run. Ryan Bergmann (FB) and June Carryl (FB) served as assistant directors.
As mentioned before, the sound balance needs to be improved. I’m sure that, for those sitting in front of the actors, the sound design by Cricket S. Myers (FB)*** was great. On the sides, it was often difficult to hear the actors, especially over the music. Hopefully this will be corrected by adjusting the amplification and micing during the run. Other than the balance problem, the sound design and effects worked well. The lighting by Tim Swiss (FB) (assisted by Zack Lapinski (FB)) was effective and established the mood well. Also effective were the projection designs by Jason H. Thompson (FB)*** (assisted by Kaitlyn Pietras (FB)): these did a wonderful job of establishing the mood, and I loved how they weren’t static but incorporated movement of the actors. The scenic design by Stephen Gifford (FB)*** was effective and simply, conveying the locations without being overdone (which worked well on the small stage); this was supported by the properties design of Michael O’Hara. The costumes (designed by Naila Aladdin Sanders (FB)) worked particularly well, especially those for Amanda, Justin, and Chris. The technical direction by Matthew Brian Denman (FB) held it all together, as did the stage management of Marcedes Clanton (FB), assisted by Rebecca Eisenberg (FB).
“Justin Love“ continues at The Celebration Theatre through at least November 18. Tickets are available through the Celebration Box Office (Vendini) or by calling (393) 957-1884, and may be available through Goldstar Events, LA Stage Alliance, and Plays411 (join to get discount codes). The production is well worth seeing and I hope it has a long life.
Upcoming Theatre and Concerts: For the last weekend in September, we’ve decided to avoid Carmageddon II by going north to Saugus to see “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure” at REP East on September 29. October brings some traveling for family with the bat-mitzvah of a cousin in Fresno, and Karen will be travelling for the Pacific International Quilt Festival in Santa Clara. Still, what’s a month without theatre, so… October will start out with “The Fantasticks“ at Theatre West on 10/6. That will be followed by “American Fiesta” at the Colony Theatre on 10/13, “The Book of Mormon” at Broadway LA/The Pantages on 10/27, and “1776” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on 10/28. Continuing the look ahead: November will bring “Moonlight and Magnolias” at REP East, which is booked for the end of the month. It may also bring “Seminar” at The Ahmanson Theatre (still undecided on ticketing; another possibility is “Ruddigore” at the Sierra Madre Playhouse) and may bring a concert performance of Raul Esparza at VPAC, especially if Erin flies in for it (he’s singing on her birthday). Non-theatrically, it will also bring “Day Out with Thomas” at OERM (certainly on some or all of Veterans Day weekend – November 10-11). Lastly, to close out the year, December has nothing formally scheduled (other than ACSAC), but will likely bring “Anything Goes” at the Ahmanson, and may bring “Judy Collins” at VPAC. Lastly, what few dates we do have open may be filled by productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411, or discussed in the various LA Stage Blogs I read (I particularly recommend Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times).