Long before the dancing cacti showed up or Audrey III flapped mastic jaws in a pile of laundry, I began to wonder if Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s romantic-comedy musical, Up Here, was actually a parody of romantic comedies. It wants us to take Dan and Lindsay’s silly, predictable relationship seriously, but too often spoofs everything in sight, even itself.
If you don’t count the cure — a mind-expanding knock on the head — and an inventive exception, the show’s pure formula: boy (withdrawn computer-repairer Dan) meets girl (extroverted T-shirt designer Lindsay); they date; they break up; they do, then do not move on; then enlightenment by boulder bonk; obligatory harmonic anthem; curtain.
The exception: the stage is Dan’s brain. As in the recent animated movie Inside Out, where five emotions vie to shape Riley’s life, Dan has 14 needy, narcissistic entities roaming around his cranium: from do-gooders (Mr. Can-Do) to negative meanies (Humbug) to unachievable ideals (Cool Girl/Cool Guy). As dysfunctional as the Greek gods, they are Dan’s “consciousness.” Given their cross-purposes, it’s a wonder he can brush his teeth. An obvious point: Dan can repair intricate computers but not his own psyche.
Nor, since his brain’s Cirque du Chaotic, can he express feelings. Lo and behold, Lindsay designs “Inside Out” T-shirts for that very problem. These “say things usually kept on the inside.” But the first time we see her she’s wearing an “I Hate to Cook” T-shirt; then she produces Rice Crispy bars so tasty they invade Dan’s heart — which underlines another obvious, overstressed point: people aren’t always what they seem.
The only reason Dan and Lindsay aren’t a match for eternity? He “doesn’t talk enough.” That’s...it? And this brazen inanity doesn’t parody the cottage industry of plays and movies, self-help books, and eHarmonies about “meaningful relationships”?
Up Here even spoofs the threadbare expression “since the dawn of time.” A precocious kid lectures on the History of the Rock, from the Big Bang, through plate tectonics, to Central Park, to the Baby Bang. The lectures, like the La Jolla Playhouse production, stuff too much into way too little.
The stuffing can be fun, though hectic. Dan’s bubbled brain, lit with chameleon-like emotions by David J. Weiner, looms over the stage. No matter what happens in the “real” world below, Dan’s menagerie overreacts with the Cutes. Should he call Lindsay? Epic response. Dare he ride the roller-coaster? Another epic. Swordfights break out, Maori natives stomp, three human-sized, “positive” dogs frolic, forces of light and darkness clash. But here’s another problem: Humbug and the allegedly evil dudes must be the nicest meanies around. They are, at best, such a cardboard threat they couldn’t short a synapse.
Apparently aware that there’s no “there” in Up Here, director Alex Timbers and choreographer Josuha Bergasse rarely give the eyes a rest. The show is truly spectacular — so much, in fact, it’s a measure of how far technology’s come since the Mandell Weiss opened three decades ago. But that memory evokes others at the Weiss, where surfaces didn’t smother the story (among them Anne Bogart’s Strindberg Sonata, which went inside his inferno-wracked brain, represented by two rows of large boxes, unforgettably).
If the book were better, the music would stand out more. The composers, who won an Oscar for “Let It Go” (from the movie Frozen), deliver a versatile score. The cast, to a person, sings beautifully and, combined, achieve rich choral effects. Another glitch: Dan (Matt Bittner) may not be in touch with his feelings, but his vocal chops are top shelf from the start. So what part of Dan’s brain do they come from?
Act two opens with what must be a musical no-no: trash the protagonist. The denizens in his brain sing “Don’t You Just Hate Dan?” Not really. He’s just stuck in a bad book.
So’s Lindsay, who feels stuck between revisions. At times she’s a shallow “bubble brain” with “no idea what I’m doing.” Was this the original concept? At others, as performed by mega-talented Betsy Wolfe, she’s so vital and articulate, you wish her gray matter had equal time — just what does an extrovert’s look like? — and that she had more options than just Dan and her ex-, “Mr. Ed” (Nick Verina convincing as a Love Nazi).
Dan and Lindsay are more types than characters. The most spontaneous number frees Bittner and Wolfe from the book’s restraints. As each visits a shrink, a member of the audience becomes the “Stranger” they sing about. Bittner and Wolfe freelance with aplomb (their lighting-speed ad libs are miles from anything their characters could produce), and the audience member gives the show’s most genuine reactions.
Up Here has a “wouldn’t it be fun if” quality: go inside a neurotic’s brain; deliver geological lectures; have the only character whose outside and inside are in sync be “mentally challenged” Tim (engaging Eric Peterson); have a song that hates the protagonist. These and other drawing-board notions clog the stage with splashy externals. But they miss a fundamental problem: how many in the audience actually root for Dan? He’s as much an object of derision as a subject. And his salvation — deux ex rock-ina? — is a goofball gimmick.
So maybe Up Here’s just a parody after all.
Up Here, book, music, and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive
Directed by Alex Timbers; cast, Kirkau Alvaro, Matt Bittner, Andrew Call, N’Jameh Camara, Giovanni Cozic, Hanz Enyeart, Mary Glen Fredrick, Jacob Haren, April Jo Henry, Jeff Hiller, Gizel Jiminez, Zonya Love, Zakiya, Iman Markland, Lorena Martinez, Sarah Meahl, Tamara Rodriguez Mehl, Eric Peterson, Davin Rtray, Devere Rogers, Charles South, Graham Stevens, Nick Verina, Betsy Wolfe; scenic design, David Korins; costumes, Ann Closs-Farley; lighting, David J. Weiner; sound, Peter Hylenski; projections, Dan Scully; musical director/incidental music, Aron Accurso; choreography, Joshua Bergasse
Playing through September 6; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010. lajollaplayhouse.org