Dreams and Denim | “Levi! A New Musical” @ LACC Camino Theatre

I monitor all sorts of theatre related feeds, one of which is the feed of Bruce Kimmel (FB). Kimmel was the guy (literally, the Guy) behind the Lost in Boston series, numerous theatrical record labels including his current Kritzerland, and one of my favorite Off-Broadway musicals, It Came From Planet X. We have seen many of Bruce’s shows — mostly at the LA City College Theatre Academy (FB) — and they have always been enjoyable. When Bruce indicated he was doing a Indiegogo to help mount an new Sherman Bros musical, I was intrigued. The Sherman BrothersRichard M. and Robert B. (who died in 2012) — were the musical team behind many of the Disney musicals and music of the 60s and 70s. This musical had the potential to be very interesting, and so I signed up for the Indiegogo at a level that would get me tickets, and waited for it to be funded so I could schedule a date.

That date turned out to be at a very busy time — as I was getting ready for ACSAC. Given that the show was dark for Thanksgiving weekend, there was only one possible date: the evening before we flew off to Orlando. So guess where we were Friday night, after packing all day? That’s right: we braved the traffic on the 118 and the 101 to get to LA CC for the penultimate performances of Levi!

Levi!, which features a book by Larry Cohen (see also here) and Janelle Webb Cohen, purports to be a biomusical about Levi Strauss. It begins as Levi is coming to America with his friend, August. Levi makes it in but August does. Going to his family in New York, he starts life as a peddler in New York. Soon, gold is discovered in California, and his family sends him to San Francisco to represent the family business there. On the ship, he meets a fellow immigrant, Sarah Zimmerman, with whom he falls in loves. That hope gets destroyed when he learns that she is engages to Aaron Goodman. Levi arrives in San Francisco, losing the girl and most of his dry goods to businessmen who convinced him to sell it to them for 3x the value. All he is left with is worthless blue sailcloth canvas.

That’s Act I. Act II continues the story with Levi going to the mining camp, and while saving some Chinese workers, discovering that the world — especially miners — need strong pants. A fellow miner comes up with the idea to rivet them, and the “Waist Overalls” are born. Soon Levi has factories all over, with his factory in San Francisco employing Chinese workers at the same wages as the white workers. This upsets the classed folk in San Francisco, and there are riots over the Chinese Exclusion Act. Meanwhile, one of the Chinese girls has fallen in love with Levi, but he doesn’t follow up on it. The riots force Levi to send his Chinese workers to Chicago. He never gets the girl, although at the end of the show he does bring over August’s family, whom it is implied will succeed him at the factory.

Note: After this write up was posted, the producer, Bruce Kimmel (FB), commented with some corrections to what I wrote. I have interpolated his comments in this style. Additional thoughts, if any, follow his comments.

We walked out of the show thinking it had a lot of promise. It did what a good bio-show should do: It made me want to research the person around whom the story was constructed. It had a great musical and singing, and strong performances. But work was needed. The Chinese immigrant portions of the story had aspects that could be viewed as cultural insensitivity, especially as they were written by non-Chinese folks. A good Asian dramaturg was needed to ensure those aspects were handed with the right sensitivity and accuracy.

Bruce noted: “very incorrect about the Chinese – that is all factual – he not only employed them he helped them, and when the burning of Chinatown happened, he protected them and then sent them to Chicago – he gave in to the pressure from the bullies and for years his San Francisco sign said, “Made by all white labor.” “. He also noted: “I was also heartened that not one person in our audience had a problem with the way the Chinese characters were presented because believe it or not sometimes audiences understand context. We didn’t need an Asian dramaturg because the writers, myself, and our actors are all sensitive people, but also people who understand history – and we’re not going to change history to make everyone who can’t deal with it comfortable, because the way it was is the way it was. Certainly our Asian actors had no problems and happily embraced their roles. No art will ever survive if we can only look at it through the lens of today.

While I understand what Bruce is saying — and I do agree that we shouldn’t always look at things through the lens of today’s sensitivities — I do think there will be some who will be bothered by this. I hope that isn’t the case, but fear it may be. I still remember many years ago by people being upset at the phrase “Chinese Fire Drill” in reference to the production of Heartbeats at the Pasadena Playhouse, and I have a number of friends that are oversensitive to cultural appropriation and such. All shows can use improvement, so this may be one area to tweak as the production matures. The issue is not changing history; the issue is adjusting the presentation to not fall into stereotypes or problematic tropes, and to ensure it is accepted by all audiences and doesn’t serve to distract them from the rest of the show.

Some songs were clearly Disney-style; “Opportunity!” could fit into the Carousel of Progress any day. The show was saddled with what I call the Mack and Mabel problem: you want the hero of the story to get their dream family and career, but that is dashed on the rocks of reality. Same problem here: Strauss never got the wife and family he wanted. How do you make that ending upbeat. All of these are book problems — and were probably one reason why after the initial readings of the show many many years ago, it was shelved. But they can be worked out — they were not insurmountable.

Bruce clarified this last point a bit: “Your supposition that this show stayed unproduced because of the readings many, many years ago – no. This show had not ONE reading anywhere. History again. In 1979, when they wrote this, readings for new musicals were not commonplace, nor were workshops, labs, and whatever else they seem to call these things these days. In fact, the first show to ever have what became known as a workshop was A Chorus Line and it remained the only show to do so until its director did Ballroom and then Dreamgirls. The show stayed unproduced because its book was not producible back then, which they would have found out had they done a reading. It was too unwieldy, too big, too sprawling, too unfocused, and written more like a film than a show. With Larry Cohen’s blessing, I completely revised the script, cutting all the fat, rewriting stuff that needed it, but always in his style and with his humor. When we did a reading of the revised book, Larry and Richard Sherman were both over the moon about it, as was our cast, and eventually as were our audiences. In fact, the comments I got, which were many every night, were all about how strong the book was and how it was so lovely to have a musical in which you actually care about the characters.

I’m glad to learn that wasn’t the reason the show wasn’t initially produced. I did like the book of the show and the characters (and I felt the same way about Mack and Mabel when I saw it at the LACLO); it’s just that the ending you hope for doesn’t materialize. That was handled the best way it could in this book, but it still leaves a twinge of disappointment. I do think audiences today can handle that better — which is why I didn’t believe that to be insurmountable.

Alas, when I got home, I discovered there may be an insurmountable problem that will prevent this story from going on. It certainly soured me on the story aspect (not the performances or the music, mind you). It is a problem I lay solely at the feed of the book writers, one of whom may have had a political agenda.

Simply put: The story itself is 98% fabrication. Based on my research (also here, here, here, here, here, and here) the only true aspects were Strauss immigrating from Bavaria, landing in New York, eventually going west, selling “Waist Overalls”, and never marrying. There is no evidence of a friend named August who tried to come over with Strauss; he actually immigrated with his mother and sisters. Strauss went to Louisville KY to sell dry goods after New York before being sent to San Francisco. Already in San Francisco was his sister Fanny, who moved there from St. Louis. There was no Sarah Zimmerman, nor did her husband Aaron Goodman exist and go on to the US Senate. Levi didn’t invent the Waist Overalls in the gold mining camps, nor did the idea for the rivets come from a fellow miner. Rather, Strauss was already making the pants, and one of his merchandisers, Jacob Davis, came up with the idea for the rivets and sent it to Strauss, and the two patented the idea. There is no evidence of the Chinese workers that I could find, other than Levi Strauss and Company getting into hot water for mistreatment of Chinese workers in the 90s — and that’s the 1990s, not the 1890s of this story.  Strauss ends up not leaving the country to August’s kids, but to the family of his sister Fanny. Further, it appears that in order to obtain any historical photos from the company, they have to vet the story and authorize that it is correct.

Bruce corrected this a bit: “Just to set the record straight, while of course a story had to be created for this particular show, Larry Cohen based most of it on research he did. And I’m happy to tell you the historian from the Levi Strauss company came and really enjoyed the show – yes, she knew it had fiction, but overall she was happy with they way it was presented and the light it showed Levi Strauss in. Very happy.” He also noted: “our show does not take place in the 1890s it begins in 1840 and ends twenty-five to thirty years later, nor does this show ever state or even imply who he left the company to, as he’s very much alive at the end of the show.” Lastly, he noted: “But you can’t just put history onstage, the real history – nobody does that, ever. You have to make a story that audiences will respond to and Larry did that very well, I think.

As I noted when I first wrote this up: It did what a good bio-show should do: It made me want to research the person around whom the story was constructed. That’s where I discovered the portions of the story that were fabricated, and that’s where I couldn’t find articles on the internet that corroborated what I really, really, wanted to be true — because the story they put on stage was such a good story. Perhaps this could be handled best by managing expectation: Providing something in future programs (1 page) that acknowledges some changes were made in the story for stage purposes, and perhaps even identifying them and acknowledging the reality. Seeing the reviews saving the new movie The Greatest Showman for not presenting the bad slides of the life of P. T. Barnum, while the story seemingly told had as much hiding of reality as Cy Coleman’s musical Barnum did, demonstrates that today some segments want no historical whitewash.  I recall similar problems after Finding Neverland. So you acknowledge the differences, and move on.

So that uplifting book? A fabrication, and one that the Levi Strauss company would likely get upset about would this make it to Broadway. The book, in this form, is DOA. That does’t mean the songs — or at least most of them — couldn’t be salvaged into a realistic story. Some new songs would have to be written, and with half of the musical writing team deceased, that might be difficult. Kimmel could partnership with Richard to complete and rework the songs — he shares writing credits on one song in the show already. But a lot of rework is required to get this show to a Broadway-ready form.

Update: After reading Bruce’s comments, the above paragraph is too harsh. I still think some tweaking might be required as this moves along its life-path… but I no long believe it is DOA in its current form, or that a significant amount of rework is required.

Which is sad, in many ways, because there is so much potential here. The opening number of the show, and the main theme of the show — Opportunity! The Streets are Paved with Gold — captures the immigrant Jewish experience quite well. It captures the promise and the reality. A few other shows have touched upon this — Rags and Ragtime most notably — but it is a great subject to tackle. The story of Strauss’ start in the west is a good one, minus the unnecessary Chinese subplot. But any bio-story needs to be historically correct (or at least 80%), and there just may not be the right protagonist for this story to make it survive for the two acts and all the songs it needs to motivate.

Lastly, Bruce noted in his comments: “We all have high hopes for the show and the fact is eight theaters have already contacted me about doing it.

I do to. I hope the show goes on to a long life — I saw loads of potential in it. Reading Bruce’s comments and responses makes it clear the show may not have all the problems I saw — and that’s a good thing. But if there is one thing I’ve learned, is that if one audience member sees something someway, others will see it that way — even if that wasn’t the producer’s intent, and even if others in the audience don’t have the same reaction. As in the acquisition world in which I work, the program office (that is, the producer), must decide the level of risk that is acceptable to them, and may choose to mitigate that risk. This was the first production of a show, and for a first production, it was 90% there if not more (and much better than many other first productions I’ve seen and still wish would reappear in a final form — I still remember Les Jazz at the Taper, and Mask and Dangerous Visions at the Pasadena Playhouse, as examples). But if I saw something — even if I interpreted it wrong — then others may as well. If small tweaks can address those issues — either through book or presentation changes — to make the show even stronger, as with software, earlier is the time to do them. If one reads histories on musicals — especially musicals that might eventually make, shall we say, “The Big Time” — is that they grow and adjust from production to production along the way. They aren’t frozen at the beginning.  My intent — as I do in my real world job — is to identify potential risk. It is the job of others to determine the likelihood of that risk, and make any necessary mitigations.

As for the songs themselves: they are (for the most part) enjoyable and peppy, and classic Sherman Brothers songs. This show needs a cast album to preserve the music and these performances. Kimmel has the ability to do so and has done so in the past, and even given my problems with the book, I’d participate in an Indiegogo for that album. Some of the songs are great — especially the opening number and the repeated theme, the “Business is Business” number, the “Pay Dirt” number and its audio choreography. Even the touching ballad that Kimmel helped complete, “So many Empty Rooms”, is really good. A few songs are on the culturally problematic side — “Like a Man” has that problem (as well as the comparisons to Mulan), or “Great American Friend” or “Dream I Must Not Dream”.  Absent those songs, the ones here are great (although perhaps a tad too Disney — and I’m writing this walking distance from Disney Orlando, so I know).  The one other concern I had song-wise was whether this show was too much in the “old-style” musical style of musicals from the 1960s and 1970s. Broadway musicals have seen a seismic shift in how the songs connect with the material (think Hamilton or Dear Even Hansen), and the style here just feels barely old-school.

Bruce noted: “One thing I love about it is the very thing you have a problem with: It’s very old-fashioned in its construction and feel. There is a reason Hello, Dolly! a big, old-fashioned musical is a huge hit on Broadway right now. There is a reason why Bart Sher’s productions of South Pacific and The King and I did well – big, old-fashioned musicals. Nothing like ’em. 🙂

I’d agree, to an extent, although Hello DollySouth Pacific, and King and I also were classic era successes to begin with, not new shows. Other new shows that have had the old-fashioned feel haven’t had the same success — even though I might personally have loved the music and the books (Young Frankenstein, Addams Family, and Big Fish are examples here, although they’ve had a long production lives after Broadway). Others, luckily, have hit with the audience in spite of being old fashioned in construction and having slight book problems as perceived by reviewers (Wicked is an example here). So I think the concern remains. The show will be a hit for the audience looking for an old-style show. The plot elements may allow it to connect with the audiences looking for meaning, but will that be enough to overcome the older musical stylings — that’s the question I can’t answer.

PS: If you want to hear the music from this, Bruce’s label, Kritzerland, is doing a limited run pressing of the cast album. I encourage you to order and give it a listen.

So, summarizing what we have so far: Book and Music-wise, this show has lots of promise and many wonderful songs. However, there are some structural and content problems at the heart that would require significant rework [Edited: could use a little tweaking] if this show was to succeed about this this subject, in these days, in a larger venue and lifespan (i.e., a Broadway mounting).

So, setting book aside, how was the execution of the show. Here I’m pleased to say that it was top-notch; something I’ve come to expect and enjoy when Bruce Kimmel (FB) is at the helm as director and  Kay Cole is on-board as Choreographer. This team works well together, and takes the time and care to bring out great performances from the actors. In this case, most of the actors were students at LACC, but you would never know it from the quality of their performances. The choreography was also great — especially in the “Pay Dirt” number. The show was simply enjoyable to watch owning to the hard work of the actors and the directorial and choreographic teams. The actors were having the time of their life on the stage, and it was reflected and amplified by the audience. So kudos to the team for this.

In the lead position was Marc Ginsberg (FB), the sole Equity actor, as Levi Strauss. He was a delight to watch. He had a singing voice that I really enjoyed (particularly in the opening number, “Seven Beautiful Children”, and “Look How It Adds Up”), a great stage presence, a personality that came through in his performance, and just an affable way of relating to the other actors that made the show great. If the show were still running, I’d advise you to go see it just to see his remarkable performance.

Most of the rest of the performers were either students in the LACC Theatre Academy, or alumni of the Theatre Academy. The quality of their performances were remarkable. There are a few sets of named performers, and then I’ll get to the ensemble players.

As Sarah Zimmerman, Rachel Frost (FB) had most of her scenes on the boat between New York and San Francisco, with a few more in San Francisco. She interacted well with Ginsberg’s Strauss, and had some beautiful numbers in “We Know Why”, “Happy Love”, and”So Many Empty Rooms”. She had a lovely singing voice.

The two young kids — Scotty Vibe (FB) [Jacob] and Hadley Belle Miller (FB) [Young Girl] were… cute. But I also noted their performances, and how they played with their characters even when it was clear they were on-stage primarily for the “ahh, cute” factors. They were acting, and they were doing a great job of it.

The Chinese contingent — Tristen Kim (FB) [Han Chow], and his three “wards” Prisca Kim (FB) [Su Lin]; Eliza Kim (FB) [Tim Sang]; and Brianna Saranchock (FB) [Tam Lee, Immigrant, Woman, Miner] — were interesting to watch. Problematic characters in a cultural-sensitivity sense, they had good comic timing in “Like a Man” and the surrounding scene, and Prisca Kim did a delightful job with her solo “The Dream I Must Not Dream”. Note that I was also taken by her performance in Kimmel’s previous LA: Then and Now. The problem with these characters is how to integrate the performance without having it drop into the stereotypical or formulaic.

Jesse Trout (FB) [Howard, Miner, Official] and Connor Clark Pascale (FB) [Stafford] are perhaps the villains of the piece: they underpay Strauss on the boat, and later they to convince him to go against his Chinese workers. They capture the villainy right, and do good on their reprise of “Business is Business”.

Rounding out the cast in various ensemble and smaller named roles were: Charlton Brio (FB) [Old Willie, Miner, Immigrant]; Kyle Brogmus (FB) [Official, Junk-Man, Sailor, Crew-member, Miner]; Eugene Thomas Erlikh (FB) [Karl, Stevedore, Voice 1, Immigrant]; Paola Fregoso (FB) [Streetwalker, Flo]; Bedjou Jean (FB) [Blacksmith, Official, Miner]; Kole King (FB) [August, Isadore, Shortman]; Christina McGrath (FB) [Official, Peddler, Miner]; Shawna Merkley (FB) [Crew, Woman, Voice 3]; Anastasia Perevozova (FB) [Aunt Frieda, Immigrant]; Justice Quinn (FB) [Miner, Voice 2, Official]; Savannah Rutledge (FB) [Official, Peddler, Servant, Miner]; James Singleton (FB) [Goodman, Immigrant, Policeman, Cowboy, Miner]; Trenton Tabak (FB) [Man 1, Man 2, Passerby, Official, Miner]; and Sabrina Torres (FB) [Immigrant, Miner]. As a group, they sang and moved well; they also seemed to be having fun with their roles.

The production was under the Music Direction of Richard Allen (FB), and featured Orchestrations by Lanny Meyers (FB). The on-stage, in the back, orchestra consisted of Richard Allen (FB) [Keyboard1, Conductor]; Lanny Meyers (FB) [Keyboard2]; Say Jay Hynes [Violin]; Kim Richmond and John Reilly (FB) [Woodwinds]; Timothy Emmons [Bass]; and Ed Smith (FB) [Drums / Percussion]. The orchestra sounded great.

Rounding out the production credits: Tesshi Nakagawa (FB)’s scenic design was a movable wood structure that made me think of Hamilton‘s scaffolding. Minimalist, but it worked well. The lighting design by Derek Jones (FB) set the mood well. The Sound design by Austin Quan (FB) was reasonably clear, although there were a few mic problems. Morgan Gannes (FB)’s Costume Design seemed appropriately period. Graphic design was by Doug Haverty (FB). Maggie Marx (FB) was the Production Stage Manager.

The last performance of Levi!i was Saturday, December 2, 2017.


Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts 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 currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre(FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (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:

This week continues with ACSAC 2017 in Orlando FL. As soon as we return, we’ve got Pacific Overtures at Chromolume Theatre (FB) and the Colburn Orchestra at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB). The weekend encompassing Chanukah sees us back at the Saroya  (FB) for the Klezmatics (FB). We also hope to squeeze in a performance of A Christmas Story at the Canyon Theatre Guild (FB). Of course there will also be the obligatory Christmas Day movie — who knows — perhaps it’ll be the upcoming The Greatest Showman.

Right now, early 2018 is pretty open, with only a few weekends taken by shows at the Pantages and Actors Co-Op. I did just pick up tickets for Candide at LA Opera (FB). But that will likely fill up as Chromolume announces their dates, and announcements are received on interesting shows. Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018! We may also be adding a CTG subscription, given their recent announcements regarding the next season.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.