Does taking a regular nine-to-five job equal growing up or ‘giving in’—and when does ‘settling down’ become just settling? These are the questions that plague a quartet of impetuous young New Yorkers named “Waverly”, “Darren”, “Lisa” and “Luke”, as they each desperately try to evade disillusionment upon waking up with a “hangover from their twenties” in the musical “Next Thing You Know”. The latest endeavor at “The Chromolume Theatre” at “The Attic” in Los Angeles California—which, with this West Coast Premiere stages an exuberant and much welcomed “comeback” after a several month hiatus, the show features the music of Joshua Salzman and a book and lyrics by Ryan Cunningham—the team best known for their previous work, Off-Broadway’s “I Love You Because”. Directed by Shen Heckel with Musical Direction by Emily Cohn (who also serves as the on-stage piano accompanist throughout) “Next Thing You Know” hails a new, “cutting edge’ development in the evolution of significant “relationship” musicals and shouldn’t be missed!
Performed sans intermission, the action follows “Waverly”, a part-time Bartender and wanna-be Actress who, we’re advised, is having a “quarter life crisis” that’s compounded when she’s offered a permanent position at the Law Firm where she also temps. Should she stick to pursuing her lofty creative ambitions which might never be realized, or take the safe, surer (but much more mundane) route? Then there’s her live-in boyfriend of five years, “Darren”–who himself currently works as a temp at a sales office (“But I write every night” he reminds Waverly, “therefore, I’m a struggling writer!”) They are the two through and around whom most of the action takes place; yet as frequently happens (particularly when you’re young) not fully realizing just how special what they have in each other is, they mutually decide to ‘pursue different options’ and break-up. Afterward, completely unbeknownst to each other, Waverly takes up with Darren’s co-worker “Luke”– dashingly handsome-but-egotistical ‘man-child’ and incipient “Alpha Male”, who in turn befriends Darren and tries to educate him in how to successfully attract other women. In fact, one of the show’s more novel—and definitely more contemporary— constructs is the ongoing ‘computerized’ conversations he and Darren are continually having with one another (which also gives rise to some of the wittier gag-lines too!) Meanwhile, Waverly’s best-friend, “Lisa”–a young lesbian and aspiring singer also seems to be existentially perplexed (what’s more, in due course, we also learn that she too once dated Darren and that may even have been a contributing factor in her eventually wising-up and ‘coming out”.) Discouraged by her constant and futile search for her own “Ms. Right” somewhere in “the city that doesn’t sleep”, she begins to ponder whether a move out West might be best for her. More or less, they’re all waiting for some kind of ‘sign’ from the Universe to tell them what to do–which path to choose–or what to leave behind in the process. It’s also quickly apparent that our Heroes and Heroines’ essential problem is that, not only do they want to keep their youthful “anything is still possible” illusions intact, they also want everything to stay as it already is. This is summed up best by Waverly who sings “I want it all to stay pretend—all I want is it to stay this way…this: here and now!” “Do you really want to be a thirty-something with twenty-something problems?” “Lisa” then queries. (Let’s face it, Eliza Doolittle, Harold Hill and Dolly Levi never had to face problems like these!)
Thematically, “Next Thing You Know” could serve as a kind of ‘prelude’ or ‘prequel’ to more marriage-oriented pieces like “Company” or “Follies”, but with a decidedly 21st century ‘millennial” attitude. The situations are infinitely (perhaps even a bit painfully) familiar and the quartet of characters refreshingly nuanced, while Cunningham’s fast-moving script is consistently sharp, clever, and reassuring, insightfully detailing the games ‘boys” and “girls” in their twenties (for that’s what many—including these portrayed here—can continue to be at that age) play on each other regardless of the cost. Moreover, his lyrics park themselves at the scintillating intersection of Stephen Sondheim’s deep and pithy observations regarding the multifaceted condition of men and women nowadays (and their often complex relational conundrums) couched in Oscar Hammerstein’s snappy, erudite and buoyant turns-of-phrase. Heckel’s energetic direction makes the most of this in-grained continuity, never letting one facet over-take or overwhelm another making what might, in lesser hands, become a fairly forlorn or wistful tale (I.E. saying goodbye to one’s dreams and youthful idealism) instead run along quite nicely and compellingly. Furthermore, his down-right inspired set design where all of the action takes place recalls a comfy (if somewhat cramped) Lower East Side dive bar; wisely though, he’s also made it a ‘piano bar” (complete with photos of celebrities decorating the East wall) which guarantees that all the musical accompaniment is built right in! In addition, by selectively illuminating specific sections of the stage (primarily in the down-stage areas,) Richard Fong’s lighting design makes it easy to imagine other locations as well, effectively ‘opening up’ the overall staging area.
Tara Shoemaker laudably succeeds in the potentially tricky role of the aptly named “Waverly” (because she’s stuck ‘wavering’ between wanting to have her cake and eating too.) While this could make her come off as a little flaky or self-centered, Shoemaker winningly paints her as likeably human and (more importantly) relatable—rousing our empathy as opposed to our scorn. (“I don’t want to be one of many side-dishes” she complains to Darren at one point; “I want to be your ‘main entrée’!”) She also has a pleasant, mellow-introspective way with a song that easily makes her numbers like “Stay” and “I Wish There Was A Reason”, not to mention her involvement with the title song touching stand-outs. Likewise, Brad Simanski brings a slightly nebbishy—but thoroughly amiable boy-next-door type charm to the role of “Darren”. His opening salvo “As Good As I Get” is a smart summation of the secret anxieties that’s applicable for just about every man today (but especially if they’re under 40) “You might have to take a gamble, cause I’m not a sure bet” he muses, “and there’s an extraordinary chance that this ordinary man who loves you, might be as good as I get.” Simanski also demonstrates terrific emotional depth with “If She Were Coming Home” and his part (opposite Shoemaker) in “All I Want Is You”. Together they prove to be a delightfully ‘tuneful’ couple also excelling with “How About You” and later with “All That I Want Is You”.
Maya Sayre is Waverly’s bemused best friend “Lisa”—who herself is looking for that elusive, all-important omen or cosmic directive indicating how she should proceed with her life. A sultry cross between Judy Collins, Joan Baez and Edith Piaf, in making one of her primary goals to become a Professional Singer, she has plenty of cause to confer her impressive vocal talents to the on-stage proceedings. Her dynamic 11th hour “You Can’t Be Everything You Want” is right-on-the-money (and oh. so true!) “There aren’t ‘plenty of fish in the sea’, you can take it from me, they’re an endangered species–and I don’t see a great fisherman here!” she chides her BFF, “Look at the girl in the mirror and tell me what does she see?! She’s seeing the face of someone running in place!” Subsequently, when Waverly casually confesses to admiring her because, being a Lesbian, things ‘are much easier for her” she bristles acknowledging her years of self-doubt and insecurities connected with her sexuality: “And then I got to ‘admit who I am like it was some kind of sin to be confessed!” she seethes at being over-simplified to suit her friend’s conveniently ‘progressive’ perceptions.
As “Luke” Alex Allred uses his wholesome good looks to great advantage, presenting a smooth and sexy vibe such as the likes of “Jimmy Stewart” or “Tobey McGuire” would were either of them complete womanizing playboys! Allred similarly has a strong (even towering) stage presence and a truly momentous voice with just the right touch of soulfulness to it. This he brilliantly displays in “Morning After Omelet” wherein Luke smugly crows “Every time a woman stays the night–she’s happy…I don’t wonder why; I treat her well, but I don’t kiss and tell—I’m just that kind of guy!”) His duet with Simanski, “The Way To Get A Girl” is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser at the production’s half-way point; shortly thereafter however, we find, that despite his reputation as an unrepentant ladies-man (–or as Lisa puts it, an “emotional werewolf”,) Waverly has nonetheless brought out his inner “Phil Donohue”–transforming him into a sensitive, caring ‘cuddler’ who wants to share his every thought and feeling with her (which is precisely what she DOESN”T want!) He even decides to (mostly) quit smoking “for us!” he reassures her, and his melodic anti-smoking ‘tirade”, “And I Breathe” once again awesomely validates the power this dude can deliver through song!
Given the small cast, there’s not much opportunity for any big, full-scale ‘production numbers”, but when they do all come together they always triumph. Such is the case with “Little Bar On Sullivan Street” which gets things off to a rousing start—brightly introducing all the key players (and their uniformly incredible voices.) “If you want a fancy cocktail that glows up in neon-blue then we ain’t for you” exults Waverly in this bouncy opening; “where New York’s twenty-something drunks come to meet at our little bar on Sullivan Street!” “Hung Over” is also a vibrant group effort and ranks among the most memorable in the show’s score (don’t be surprised if you’re humming it for days after either!) They also provide some fine harmony during the (guardedly) optimistic final reprise of “Next Thing You Know” (“This doesn’t mean the journey’s done, it, just means a chapter’s ended and a new one has begun” they croon.) Although the ending might appear a bit contrived for some (Darren, hearing his Lady-love being insulted, physically confronts Luke who out-sizes him by neatly a foot,) it’s no more so than numerous among the very best and most time-honored musicals, and leaves the audience with an up-beat, renewed hope for Waverly and Darren’s chances as a couple.
So “if you care to spend your evening like you haven’t got a care, then pull up a chair!” Here’s a future “classic” musical that speaks to a whole new generation of theater-lovers and is the perfect antidote to those larger, “splashier’ Special-Effects Extravaganzas’ so common of late. Having opened on Friday, April 15th, 2016, “Next Thing You Know” will run through Sunday May 1st, 2016. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM and Sundays at 7:00 PM. “The Chromolume Theatre” at “The Attic” is located at 5429 W. Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. Tickets and Reservations may be obtained by calling (323) 510-2688, on-line by logging onto: www.crtheatre.com or at the theater box office which opens thirty minutes prior to show-time.
“Hung Over” Featuring The Cast Of “The Chromolume Theatre’s” 2016 West Coast Premiere Of “Next Thing You Know” In Los Angeles, Ca. (www.crtheatre.com)
Production Stills By James Esposito, Courtesy of Sandra Kuker At “Sandra Kuker PR” And “The Chromolume Theatre”; Special Thanks To James Esposito, Sandra Kuker, Shen Heckel, Emily Cohn And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Chromolume Theatre’s” “Next Thing You Know” For Making This Story Possible