Nia Whitaker (L) and Alison Luff (R) star in "Breaking Through" at Pasadena Playhouse. Courtesy Jim Cox Photography

Nia Whitaker (L) and Alison Luff (R) star in “Breaking Through” at Pasadena Playhouse.
Courtesy Jim Cox Photography

*The Pasadena Playhouse presents “Breaking Through,” the second production of its 2015-2016 season.

The musical is a world premiere original work that follows in the footsteps of productions such as “Motown: The Musical,” “Dreamgirls,” “Jersey Boys” and others that dares to open the curtains to reveal the less attractive side of the music industry.

Here you see the greed, and the backstabbing. The egos of music industry executives who do not have the best interests of the artists at heart. This is where you are introduced to compromise. And for many, it can be the beginning of the end.

It is here that you get to prove just how bad you want it. And what you’re willing to give to get it.

“Breaking Through” is a story told through the eyes of a young, talented singer-song writer named Charlie Jane (Alison Luff). In her quest to stay true to her authentic self, and not fall into the trap of drugs and alcohol that consumed her mother, she navigates the treacherous waters of the business of music, and learns first hand how easy it is to get caught up and lose yourself in the process.

Nita Whitaker (L) Alison Luff (Center) and Teya Patt (R) Photo courtesy: Jim Cox Photography

Nita Whitaker (L) Alison Luff (Center) and Teya Patt (R)
Photo courtesy: Jim Cox Photography

Amanda (Nita Whitaker), a record industry executive, was a friend to Charlie Jane’s mother and subsequently, has a soft spot in her heart for the girl. But being a puppet for her superior; the powerful, insensitive, could-care-less about scruples head of Solo Records, Jed (Robert W. Arbogast), Amanda is limited in her abilities to be soft and hides behind a tough exterior.

Though the story of the shark-filled waters of the record industry has been told before, at least it was delivered with familiar material. We could sing along to the hits of The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles and The Temptations while watching “Motown The Musical.” And fans of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons stood in the aisles and sang “Sherry,” “Walk Like A Man” and more as they watched “Jersey Boys.”

But “Breaking Through” tells the story of now; the modern star-making machinery of the pop music world that has spawned the likes of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus – stars who beat the odds of compromise by saying ‘f*ck you!’ and did it their own way in spite of the risks.

This production has the monumental task of introducing an original score of 21 new songs to its audience.

So its a good thing they are ALL pretty darn awesome!

“The most important message of our story is to hold onto yourself and be inspired to do so, and how rewarding it can be when you trust your instincts.” –Katie Kahanovitz, songwriter, Breaking Through

Alison Luff in compromise

Alison Luff (L) and Matt Magnusson (R) Photo courtesy: Jim Cox Photography

Under the direction of Sheldon Epps, who has been artistic director at Pasadena Playhouse for nearly 30 years, “Breaking Through”  — which started out as a staged reading in 2005 under their HOTHOUSE new play development program, proves to be a real gem.

With 17 extraordinary actors and singers, there is not a weak link in the bunch. This writer personally adored the work of Teya Patt. Though I don’t like to compare artists, Patt will make you think of the talented comedic-actor, Melissa McCarthy. Not only her physical similarities, but her comedic timing. She plays the roommate and best friend to Charlie Jane to perfection, and I believe audiences will fall for her immediately.

“It’s all original music with an original story, which is so rare today, And the story comes from the experiences of the songwriters.” Sheldon Epps, director, Breaking Through

Kacee Clanton

Alison Luff (L), Kacee Clanton (Center) and Matt Magnusson (R) Photo Courtesy: Jim Cox Photography

Kacee Clanton (pictured directly above-center) returns to Pasadena Playhouse straight off her strong performance in “A Night With Janis Joplin” this past summer. As Karina — a fading star at the fictitious Solo Records label, Clanton plays the hell out of this role, and she has a great voice to back it up.

It was also nice( and unexpected!) to have her character be receptive to the incoming star, Charlie Jane, instead of the usual overplayed jealousy and hate that generally accompanies such an association. I found the relationship to be an honest one.

Nita Whitaker‘s “Amanda” was strong. As a record label exec trying to protect the daughter of a friend and former artist; while at the same time trying to appease her higher ups, she was able to show believable degrees of vulnerability through a tough exterior.

I recall in my interview with her, when I asked her about the benefits and setbacks of performing in a production that so closely mirrors her own experiences as a singer, she had this to say.

“The benefit of performing in a play that has similar real life experiences is that you have a sense memory to draw from which should add a true sense of authenticity. But the hard part is wanting to play yourself and not the character whose shoes you are stepping into.

With so many of us being performers, that could be the trap. Our job with this piece is to bring people into the world of the play and let them experience the story, not tell them our own.” — Nita Whitaker, actress, “Breaking Through”

Well done, Ms. Whitaker!

And the audience couldn’t contain their applause when she sang her final song, “For the Best.”

Luff was absolutely mesmerizing as Charlie Jane.  And though I wasn’t moved by her “star status” portrayal, the simplicity she displayed during her uncompromising moments — as she played her songs on the guitar, with that sweet voice, was reminiscent of a young Joni Mitchell.

Her naivete as an aspiring artist is especially poignant in some of her scenes with Clanton’s “Karina” and record label boss, “Jed” — played with gusto by Robert W. Arbogast.

“The journey, whether you’re in a band or a solo artist, there’s a lot of commonality within things you go through. But female artists definitely face more challenges in the business.”–Cliff Downs, composer/lyricist, Breaking Through

Other strong performances were by Will Collyer (adorable as Smith!) and Matt Magnusson as Scorpio – the record label’s current young star — who was totally feeling himself, at least in the beginning.

Magnusson, who was in the summer production, “Spring Awakening” – a Tony-award-winning coming-of-age play with a large cast of deaf actors,  wasn’t an original cast member in Breaking Through. He actually stepped in after Constantine Maroulis had to leave the show early into rehearsals, due to personal issues.

Stars in the house on this night included Angela Bassett, Kate Linder (“Esther” on the Young & The Restless), Dawnn Lewis, Micky Dolenz (“The Monkees”) and his daughter, Georgia Dolenz.

BREAKING THROUGH was written by Kirsten Guenther, who worked as a Paris correspondent (USA TODAY.com) and penned the weekly column, “The Sexy Expat.” Guenther has written for celebrities including Catherine Zeta-Jones, her husband Michael Douglas, and Queen Latifah. She is also writing MGM’s upcoming “Benny & Joon.”

The winning music score and lyrics are the magic of Emmy award-winning songwriter and producer Cliff Downs (“American Idol” and “The Voice”) and Katie Kahanovitz (“Girls Night Out Pop Radio”). They nailed it on every song. Just beautiful!

Kahanovitz, who appeared on Broadway, wrote her own songs and was negotiating a major record label deal by the age of 18, applied her personal experience to the songs and, in the end, the overall story. She ended her career seven years ago.

Absolutely AMAZING scenic design by John Iacovelli. It was both simple and extravagant simultaneously — with moving parts that expanded and constricted at once. Complimented by Jared A. Sayeg’s incredible lighting. 

This production is a MUST SEE for anyone interested in first, seeing great theatre, and second, seeing this version of life behind the scenes of a dog-eat-dog world in the business of music. The acting, singing and brilliant direction by Sheldon Epps is definitely worth it.

And while you are there, take a few steps in the courtyard and visit the room dedicated to artists who broke through while doing it their own way. Prince is in there. So is Pink. Marvin Gaye is in there too.

Great care was taken in putting that room together.

BREAKING THROUGH WILL BE AT THE PASADENA PLAYHOUSE THROUGH NOVEMBER 22.

The Pasadena Playhouse is located at 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101. 

Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.

No performance on November 3.

Tickets, priced from $25.00 to $87.00, (plus premium seating at $125.00) are available online at PasadenaPlayhouse.org; by calling The Pasadena Playhouse at 626-356-7529; or visiting The Pasadena Playhouse Box Office, Tuesday – Sunday from 1:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m. during non-performance dates.  On performance dates the Box Office is open Tuesday – Saturday from 1:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. on Sunday. 

For more information, visit PasadenaPlayhouse.org.

5 Star Rating

Photo fro reviewDeBorah B. Pryor is the resident theatre critic at Electronic Urban Report (EURweb). She has a 19-year tenure as an actor in the theatre and a BA in Drama from San Francisco State University. DeBorah, who also writes children’s books, is an independent associate with LegalShield, and is the editor at EURThisNthat. A Twitter newbie, you can follow her at [email protected]