Back when, a dear friend used to give mix tapes as gifts: collections of favorite songs on audio cassettes. She insisted that the sequence was as important as the songs. Like a baseball lineup, it had to lead off strong, taper some, then bring on the heavy hitters. Like one’s favorite movies, the music didn’t have to be great or even popular. It just had to evoke personal memories, and the overall effect could inspire a zodiac of emotions.
(The one she made for me wasn’t old school, by today’s standards, but ancient school: it began with Gary U.S. Bonds’s “Quarter to Three” and ended with Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”)
Jon Lorenz and Colleen Kollar Smith are right. The creators of miXtape, now in a world premiere at the Horton Grand, say that favorite songs function like a time machine. They “mark your memories.” The ones embedded in your genetic code recall not just joy and sadness but scenarios of when they were fresh: faces, smells, intimations of life eternal, or life losing all meaning, or the world’s saddest eyes.
(Sam Shepard said it would take a lot of whiskey or a “ton of courage” for him to hear the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” again.)
miXtape’s a big, sprawling, longish evening, performed with rampant energy and polish by the Lamb’s Players’ eight-person cast. The show’s like a magnet. It attracts not just the music but the popular culture and history of the 1980s. Memory-triggers zip past: Pet Rocks, Pacman, Rubik’s Cube, Nelson Mandela, Cheers — but why not Saturday Night Live? Also, other ’80s lows and highs, like the Trickle-Down Theory that didn’t (measured by the rise of the homeless); or, during the ’84 NL playoffs, when the “wave” made it all the way around the Murph for the first time, and hordes of newly unrepressed Padre fans applauded their audacity.
miXtape has a frame tale: four men and four women abandon today’s frantic pace — a “Manic Monday” — and, via time machine and cassettes from above, find themselves in the 1980s: no cell phones, no bars, and things appear “simpler,” at least to them. The decade flash-dances footloose before their eyes.
miXtape clusters songs around a theme. In a funny sequence about the exercise mania of the early ’80s, women in legwarmers stretch and dip to Olivia Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical” (“everybody was working out,” one says, “or at least dressed like they were”). Joy Yandell, excellent all evening long, nearly explodes to “Maniac.” Richard Simmons makes a cameo, his bobbing headband a near blur.
Colleen Kollar Smith’s choreographic collages range from Jazzercise riffs to Michael Jackson’s genius moves to a parody of Top Gun, starring her husband Lance Arthur Smith, done with rolling office chairs; Jemima Dutra’s apt period costumes, from The Breakfast Club togs to the proton-packed Ghostbusters (costume changes often taking place in seconds).
The musical’s about the 1980s but has a 2010 radar-blip attention span. Most of the songs are actually song-bites, snippets of tunes, like Mark Knopfler’s intro to “Money for Nothing.” As soon as you want more, they’re gone. miXtape uses this scattergun effect almost exclusively. More respites would help, one in particular.
“Just a small-town girl”: Louis Pardo’s semi-nerdy Brian goes to the prom and has a tonic chord moment with his date and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which he hears for the first time. He talks about the “power of song” to freeze and magnify a slice of time, in effect underlining the musical’s theme. In the song, the “streetlight” people live “just to find emotion/ Hiding somewhere in the night.” Brian’s afraid the emotion he found may vanish when the song ends. The scene, the band nearly drowning out Pardo’s words, moves way too quickly.
Act Two turns inward, as the characters graduate and become adults. The chipper feel of Act One gives way to somber reflections of love lost — or never found, as in “She Must Be Somebody’s Baby” — and hearts broken. Although the songs in this section have a sameness, the performances deepen (especially Michelle Pereira’s too-brief rendition of Heart’s “Alone”). When the sketchily drawn characters recall the Challenger tragedy, the beginning of AIDS, and the Berlin Wall, however, the music often falls short of the subject matter.
As a mix tape, the musical’s cluttered. Instead of trying to account for everything in the decade, it needs to pare down some parts and heighten others. Requiring an audience to flit from one song/idea/memory to another nonstop ultimately works against the concept. But as a performance, backed by Andy Ingersoll’s versatile band and under Kerry Meads’s feisty direction, miXtape is always entertaining — and memory-provoking.
miXtape: A Musical Journey Through the ’80s by Jon Lorenz and Colleen Kollar Smith
Lamb’s Players Theatre, Horton Grand Theatre, 444 Fourth Avenue, downtown
Directed by Kerry Meads; cast: Louis Pardo, Season Marshall Duffy, Joy Yandell, Marci Anne Wuebben, Lance Arthur Smith, Leonard Patton, Spencer Rowe, Michelle Pereira; scenic design, Mike Buckley; costumes, Jemima Dutra; lighting, Rachael Campbell; sound, Patrick Duffy; choreographer, Colleen Kollar Smith; musical arrangements and direction, Jon Lorenz
Playing through September 26; Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-437-0600.