All hail good intentions! The homeless problem in Los Angeles needs all the help it can get, and a well-meaning musical that presents Skid Row residents’ stories could offer an insightful perspective. The show’s writer/producer/co-composer/set and lighting designer/actor/activist, Thaddeus Nagey, drew on years of his own personal experience on the street to create Because It’s Sunny in L.A. (Especially On Skid Row). Karesa McElheny directs.
Nagey’s title is a play on the misconception that LA’s homeless population is made up primarily of people from other states who move here for the good weather. In fact, as the show makes clear, the majority of the 20,000 Skid Row homeless are southern California natives or have lived here for at least 20 years.
Against the background of an authentic-feeling Skid Row street scene, with tents, dilapidated furniture, and milk cartons (used to store and transport belongings), five Skid Row inhabitants persist despite their losses. The story isn’t always easy to follow, but essentially features veteran James (Nagey), Costella (Lorinda Hawkins Smith), Abbott (Alikhan Lochin), Vanessa (Veve Melendrez) and her mother (Betzi Marroquin). Iron Donato plays a police officer and emelle plays a developer with an eye on the Skid Row area.
Smith and Lochin have star power; their moving performances in particular help provide insights into the homeless experience and overcome some redundancies that make the show over-long and disjointed. Smith sings the opening number, the jarring “No Time for Sleep.” Later, she and Lochin perform a compelling acting/rap duet, “Because I’m Homeless.”
All the homeless characters endure police harassment and other dehumanizing experiences that they work to rise above. Costella occupies the large tent at the left of the stage. She tries to be a positive force in the neighborhood, distributing hygiene kits and sewing masks. Yet her situation is far from positive. The police took her son and broke her leg. “When oppression is a way of life,” she notes, “you escape in your mind.”
The villainous developer played by emelle displays her greed—and an exquisite voice—in “Billions of Dollars.” If only she could move out the vagrants, she could sell apartments for millions. The addiction of those “vagrants” and drug use in general are downplayed as affecting the Skid Row, not mentioned until almost the end of the show.
Percussionists Ray Lewis and Marcos Mayes keep a consistent street beat throughout the show. Tim Poulin, co-composer and sound designer, gathered sounds from the streets and integrated them into the show’s soundtrack.
Because It’s Sunny in L.A. (Especially On Skid Row) is playing at the Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd. at Hudson. Find details about performances through June 24 and purchase tickets at www.becauseItssunny.com.