At opening night of the edgy pop-rock musical Breaking Through, I sat in the Pasadena Playhouse mesmerized by lead actress Alison Luff’s melodic voice. She sat on an empty stage with a white spotlight shining down, and she played the guitar while singing the first song, Breaking Through. Later in the song a back curtain parted and a six piece live orchestra appeared on a second level stage, joining Luff in playing the music to the lyrics written by Cliff Downs and Katie Kahanovitz.
The conductor David O. also played the keyboard, while John Gentry Tennyson played a second keyboard. Two more guitarists – Steven Gregory and Andrew Synowiec complement the music, as does Ernest Tibbs on Bass and Dave Zarlenga expertly on drums.
Set in New York at the present moment, the drama directed by the esteemed Sheldon Epps, begins with Charlie Jane, played by Luff, as a struggling singer/songwriter, and daughter of a famous singer who disappears after a going down a dark path of alcohol and drugs. Charlie Jane reaches out to one of her mother’s friends in the music industry, Amanda, played by Nita Whitaker, for help in breaking into the music business.
Luff commands attention from everyone in the audience as she sings Hear Me Out. With 20 musical numbers, Luff appears in more than 10 and is exquisite onstage. At times she reminded me of the Academy Award winning actress Anne Hathaway in her expressions and poise.
Whitaker shines with It’s Gonna Be Huge and brings down the house with her solo song – For the Best in Act Two. She dazzles the audience dressed in Executive attire by Costume Designer Alex Jaeger, and draws attention while onstage with her beauty and talent.
Charlie Jane soon learns that the music business forces passionate souls to compromise their integrity, when she is introduced to the ruthless record mogul Jed Barnes, played brilliantly by the handsome Robert W. Arbogast. It gets even worse for Charlie Jane when she performs one of her songs to music heart throb Scorpio, played by the charismatic Matt Magnusson. It’s sex, parties, rock and roll and maintaining number one on the charts for this popular star.
When Scorpio comes out on stage in full rock and roll attire with his shirt unbuttoned, I think I heard every woman in the audience swoon. This actor is dynamite! He is sexy and spectacular singing All or Nothin’ and Listen to my Heart.
Charlie Jane gets her big break when Jed and Amanda want to sign her to their record label, but she must work with Scorpio. The rock executives want the two performers to pretend to be lovers for publicity. At first Charlie Jane resists, yet she gives in to their demands and sells her soul to acquire fame, as seen in The King and Queen of Everything song. This number was part Lady Gaga, part Nicki Minaj and Britney Spears in spectacle, direction and costumes. The chemistry between Luff and Magnusson sizzles onstage.
As does Luff’s interest with the craft service guy, Smith, played by a UCLA Bruin Will Collyer. He is sweet, likable and one of the only truthful people in the show.
Roommate Gwyn, played by the talented and comedic actress Teya Patt is infatuated with her female boss Liz, played by Katherine Tokarz. Unfortunately, her boss is married to a man and has children, but wants to dabble with a lesbian relationship too. This turns Gwyn to sell her soul, just like Charlie Jane makes sacrifices and sells hers too. Tokarz projects her voice to the very back of the stage and make us laugh with her impeccable timing.
A “Dreamgirls” moment is when aging rocker, Karina, played by Kacee Clanton (a Pasadena resident) is dropped from the record label. This brilliant actress and singer comes back to the Pasadena Playhouse after starring in A Night With Janis Joplin.
When she sings Letting Go and Breathe In, the audience wants to give her a standing ovation. Karina is being pushed aside by the new ingenue Charlie Jane at the record company, and Karina just isn’t quite ready to let go of her fame and fortune. What does she have left in life? Her music career was all she had.
The ensemble included UCLA Bruin Fatima El-Bashir as the Intern at the Record Company. She had us all laughing in her scene with Jed Barnes and Charlie Jane. Also, whenever dancer Christopher Marcos walked onstage, my eyes followed his graceful moves. I also sought out Terrance Spencer’s fluid movements. Both were expressive and dazzling to watch. Reed Kelly led the dancers as the talented Dance Captain of the musical and Andrew Pirozzi enhanced the stage.
Shout out to Dominic Pierson for his melodic voice and smooth moves. Jessica Jaunich, Laura L. Thomas and Samantha Zack were all adorable as the hair and make-up girl and back up dancers in Alex Jaegers whimsical costumes.
At the end, Charlie Jane realizes that she doesn’t want to be famous, she just wants to write songs from her heart to transform others.
This musical landed on Epps desk almost three years ago. It finally comes alive on the Pasadena stage for all appreciate.
Get a ticket today for Breaking Through, because it will only be in Pasadena until November 22. Hopefully, after this run, it will find a home on Broadway, where it deserves to be.
Out of 1 to 5 hands for applause – I give Breaking Through 5 claps!
Pasadena Playhouse – http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org – 39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101 (626) 356-7529 – Park across the street in the parking structure for a flat fee of $5.