I get it. Sometimes it feels like everything’s spinning out of control. It can be tempting to embrace nostalgia rather than confront today’s realities. But rose-colored glasses offer limited vision. Without a purpose, rambling tales of the past lose even the most supportive audience.
We all have fond memories of favorite childhood places, activities and foods, shared with others who grew up near us during the same era. But not every memory warrants a song, and not every collection of songs hangs together to create a viable musical—even a revue.
The songs and sketches in Group Rep’s L.A. Now and Then—conceived, directed and mostly written by Bruce Kimmel—are a hodgepodge representing scenes from his 1950s and ‘60s childhood and teen years, with other snapshots of LA thrown in. These include historical documentation (the ‘40s story of “The Black Dahlia,” performed with emotion by Lottie Arnold) and what feel like random musical memories from the 1970s and ‘80s (the cringy “Straight Outta L.A,” “A Home in Laurel Canyon,” a misguided salute to disco called “Born Too Late”), plus “Midnite at the Roxy” and “Sunset Strip 1965” where standouts Danika Masi and Lisa Dyson remember the Roxy, the Whiskey and Gazzarri’s.
Kimmel pines for simpler times. As in the Twilight Zone episode “A Stop at Willoughby,” the message runs loud and clear throughout: “Then” rocked. “Now” sucks.
“Then” there was boxing and wrestling at the Grand Olympic Auditorium (now a Korean church) and music at Pan Pacific Auditorium (lost to fire). Record stores and big, beautiful movie theaters were everywhere. Hullabaloo was local and kids’ TV shows starred plain old heroes (not the super kind). Santa Monica had no traffic and Christmas had no snow (actually, one of those is still true). Disney was based at a cute little studio in Burbank, and the eponymous founder was still around. Helms Bakery delivered donuts, C.C. Brown’s served ice cream, and life’s toughest challenge was deciding which flavors to buy. Now? Kale, feh.
The catchy and peppy opening song, “This Is the City,” sets the tone for a clever musical that unfortunately doesn’t follow. A barbershop quartet-sung “What’s So Good About the Good Old Days?”—reprised in the second act—denigrates everything modern, ultimately answering “Everything, that’s what.” This is a cantankerous and curmudgeonly view that leaves a sour taste, despite the upbeat melodies.
An earnest cast of 13 and a talented band of six led by Richard Allen do their best to keep things moving. A less ambitious, shorter and more focused show would have served them better.
There’s plenty to nitpick, such as a Laurel Canyon populated by New Yorkers Carly Simon and Laura Nyro along with the more accurate Joni Mitchell and Carole King. Lyrics are often maudlin and their rhymes too on the nose. But despite what feels like a revolving door that doesn’t always work correctly, some performances shine. Danika Masi does justice to the best song in the show, the non-nostalgic “An L.A. Love Song” (“I’d take the 405 to the 101 to the 10 for you”). Harrison Fahn and Alec Reusch talk NFTs in the well-done “The Crypto Space.” (Hey, maybe “Now” isn’t so bad after all!)
The few “Now and Then” sketches bring a touch of Laugh-In but no fresh perspective. Then: Family dinner table conversation. Now: Everyone’s looking at their phones. Hipsters look like beatniks. Kids used to grow up slowly. Today, everyone has short attention spans.
The longest piece in the show is “We Look Ahead,” a lengthy and personal monologue performed by lead actor Jeffrey Rockwell about gay life. The tale and accompanying song incorporate details about “being stealthy, being furtive, being gay,” the pre-Stonewall Black Cat riots, and a long love affair. It veers between wistful and resentful, and highlights the dated (at least in LA) message “Stop the hatred.”
The golden age of musical revues was 100 years ago. Even the heyday of TV variety shows is 50 years gone. The format might be ripe for a redo, but LA Then and Now takes itself too seriously, and is too mired in a fantasy past, to lead the way.
L.A. Now and Then will be performed through May 8 at Group Rep’s Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd. in North Hollywood. Show times are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm, Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets are $40 and are available here.