At one time or another, who hasn’t owned a pair of good ol’ Levi’s Jeans—you probably have several in your closet or laundry basket right now! But how much do you know about the man whose very name has become synonymous with the britches that became working America’s trademark? Over a century before names like Calvin Klein, Tommy Bahama and Gloria Vanderbilt found their way onto hind-end labels, there was Levi Strauss. Now, none other than Richard and Robert Sherman—the Oscar-winning siblings behind such iconic film scores as “Mary Poppins”, “Charlotte’s Web” “Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang”, “Bed-knobs And Broomsticks” and “Summer Magic”, are celebrating the life of this true-blue pants-designing pioneer with the World Premiere of their new musical “Levi!” A classic “Rags to Riches” story (by earning riches out of rags) set in the early-to-middle decades of the nineteenth century, “Levi! The Musical” features a book by Larry Cohen and Janelle Webb Cohen with music and lyrics by Messrs. Sherman and Sherman. Produced by Kritzerland Entertainment, this debut production opened at Los Angeles City College’s “Camino Theatre” in Los Angeles, California as part of their “Theatre Academy” program.
Directed by local theater impresario Bruce Kimmel with Choreography by Broadway Veteran Kay Cole and Musical Direction by Richard Allen, the Cohen’s Book is swiftly moving, while also surprisingly pithy, dramatic, and even timely in its exploration of Immigrants rights over the centuries. This is not always one of those standard light-weight, ‘feel-good’ musicals, (albeit there certainly are those elements in it.) Kimmel’s streamlined direction plays to every one of the multitudinous strengths the librettists have infused into their story (even the set changes seem like quick little dance breaks.) Likewise, the score by Richard Sherman and his late brother Robert, boasts plenty of clever turns-of-phrase as we’ve come to expect from this supremely accomplished (one might even say “Legendary”) duo. True to form, many of the numbers heard here gratis these talented tunesmith/siblings will stay enchantingly in your head, lifting your mood long after the final curtain has been wrung down. This production comes as the realization of a long-held dream that began back in the 1980’s when the Sherman Brothers met with the husband and wife screenwriting team of Larry Cohen and Janelle Webb Cohen about creating a musical about this too-often overlooked fashion and American icon. Whereas word has it that the story was optioned three times over the ensuing years, frustratingly nothing ‘concrete’ ever came of this interest. That is, until a year ago when Richard Sherman brought Kimmel the score and script noting that it was he and his late brother’s considerable heartbreak that the show had never been done, further inquiring whether there was any possibility of Kimmel doing a staged reading. Instead, Kimmel not only agreed, he decided to mount a full production at his alma mater, Los Angeles City College, where he frequently returns to help keep musical theatre alive and support their “Theatre Academy” program. “Then I met with the authors,” he observes, adding that the couple also agreed to make whatever changes he, as the director, thought might be needed, ultimately giving him their blessing to work from a revised edition of their script. This ‘Labor Of Love” has categorically been a worthwhile pursuit for everyone involved–those in attendance on opening night couldn’t scramble to their feet fast enough in conferring a thunderous—and abundantly deserved–Standing Ovation to this genuine theatrical ‘discovery’ of a show!
When we initially meet Strauss, he’s on the deck of a ship heading into New York Harbor where he left his home in Bavaria seeking a better life in a land where he hears “the streets are paved in Gold”. That he, himself has come over in steerage class is of no matter—he realizes if one is smart and ambitious enough there’s “Opportunity” to be had at every turn! Even this opening is worthy of significant praise and plaudits in its own right, and at its conclusion he portentously proclaims, “I am standing in America…it fits!” Once there, he moves in with his Uncle Isadore and a household full of relatives. They’re peddlers by trade who induct the new arrival into their sale force. Lacking a wagon (“We sold the horse,” they tell him; “he wasn’t family!”) or even a push-cart, he must hoist his wares up onto his back. When news of the gold strike in California (which isn’t even a State yet,) rocks the nation, his family urges him to head out there to take advantage of the growing possibilities for their dry-goods business in what is sure to be a boom economy (“Go West!” they inveigle him; “Do your best!”) …the only bad part is, with no trans-continental railroad (which at this time is only in the fledgling phases of being built and far from completion,) the fastest, safest way to get there is by boat—and the trip will take months to complete—going all the way around South America’s “Cape Horn” (the Panama Canal also being decades away.) “You mean I got off at the wrong end of the country?!” he puzzles. On shipboard (again,) he meets a comely lass named “Sarah Zimmerman” who will become the love of his life and this bittersweet relationship motivates much of Strauss’s actions, either directly or indirectly. Below deck he also meets a pair of shifty, bigoted “Carpet Baggers” named “Stafford” and “Howard”, who also mean to take advantage of the throngs scurrying to the West Coast with high hope of striking it rich. They serve (more or less) as the “Baddies” of the piece, exemplifying just about everything that was wrong with America’s whole “Manifest Destiny” movement during this era. Arriving in San Francisco, the miners offer up a lively reprise of “Opportunity” (with stanzas that address what’s happening with the Gold Rush.) Trouble is, in looking for some fast cash for a failed attempt to ‘bribe’ his new love’s Husband-To-Be, Strauss has sold most of his family’s inventory they sent him with to establish his new store. Indeed, all he’s left with are yards and yards of a durable blue material called “Denim” (so-called for the French town of “De Nimes” where it was manufactured.) This leaves Levi to fret alone “What am I going to do with all this blue cloth?!” as the curtain falls on Act One. Following the entr’acte, things pick up with our boy fighting his discouragement and hard at work—not as a merchant, but working in the gold fields, while picking up what money there is by doing odd bits of tailoring and clothing repair for his fellow “Fortune-Hunters” and “Forty-Niners”. One of them, “Han Chow” an immigrant from China asks that Strauss make some trousers for his friends—a trio of “Coolie Hatted” ‘Boys’ he also brought over. It’s while measuring them that Levi happens upon a startling revelation: “It’s strange,” he says, “You Asian boys have the same measurements as Caucasian girls…” (His facial expression at this point when realizing the reason is one of the show’s more priceless sight gags!) He agrees to keep their secret if they help him take all that denim cloth and create the article of clothing he will soon become world-renowned for (“After all, they can each sew,” Han offers.) While working with such rough, thick cloth is tough, a blacksmith friend (played by Bedjou Jean) suggests using rivets to help reinforce the stitching (for which Levi promptly makes him his new partner!) Success, it seems, is in the cards…
In the title role, Marc Ginsburg triumphantly leads the enthusiastic cast of 23. Without a doubt, this is a dream part for any actor and in decades past one could easily picture the likes of Dick Van Dyke or Joel Grey winning accolades for it. Happily, Ginsburg more than lives up to this promise. On stage practically the entire time driving the action, he makes the most of each golden moment giving, for all intents and purposes, a flawless performance here (and he does it all using an authentic Germanic accent!) It helps that he’s a very likeable and charismatic presence and also possesses a solid voice, which he unveils at the top of the show with his part in “The Streets Are Paved With Gold” and “Opportunity”. He also scores with “Seven Beautiful Children” as “Levi”, out on his first day as a “Peddler” finding his way through the streets of New York, dreams of what life will be like when he’s finally an affluent “Family Man” (–and what his future offspring will be like.) Similarly, Marc’s winning rendition of the rapidly-intoned “Levi’s Pants” is a bona fide highlight of Act Two; but Ginsburg’s real ‘shining moment’ however, occurs amidst his 11 O’clock declaration, “Look How It All Adds Up”, as Strauss, buffeted by recent political developments (some would say set-backs) in the ‘City by the Bay’ is undergoing a crisis of faith. Like a decisive soliloquy surrounded by musical notes, and worked through via song, this is a truly incredible number–and one powerfully interpreted by our leading man. His emotion here is seething and intense—and what immaculate phrasing and powerful tones he conveys it with!
Rachel Frost is also a marvel as “Sarah Zimmerman”. Gifted with a clarion voice, her introduction is via a nifty little love duet opposite Ginsburg called “We Know Why”, that rates among the Academy-Award Winning song-writing team’s very best work. It even starts out as a simple music-box melody as Levi and Sarah meet on deck. Subsequently, Frost also scores big with the lilting (not to mention deeply poignant,) “Happy Love” as she breaks to Levi the news that she’s actually being ‘sent’ to California to marry another whom her father made a business arraignment with. When at last she meets her new ‘intended’ on the dock, she’s less-than-thrilled with him, but this was a time when women (even in America) had few rights, so what’s an obedient daughter to do? Post-Intermission, she returns again to provide still another knock-out melody, as “Sarah” is 20-years older and now a seasoned society lady in an empty marriage, which gives rise to the wistful, “So Many Empty Rooms”, a stalwart rumination on taking the wrong path in life and finally being experienced enough to realize it. Interestingly, this song was written specifically for this inaugural production with music by Richard Sherman and Lyrics by Bruce Kimmel. (“When you’re poor, you have everything to laugh at,” a world-weary Levi tells her at length; “When you’re rich, everyone is laughing at you!”)
Tristen Kim also brings off an engaging performance as “Han Chow”, a hapless young Chinese émigré who has brought along with him a trio of sisters who must masquerade as boys due to “The Page Law” of 1875, which prohibited female immigrants from China: “Most Chinese men work on the railroads,” Chow reminds them; “and the Railroad owners don’t want them to be married!” His “Like A Man”, as he tries to teach the girls how to walk, act and pass for members of the masculine sex is a buoyant comic interlude, and lines-up an absolute crowd-pleaser. Joining him is Eliza Kim as “Tim Sang”, Briana Saranchock as “Tam Lee” and Prisca Kim as “Su Lin” (whom Strauss playfully re-dubs “Small”, “Medium” and “Large” when they start working for him.) This quartet form the basis if the potent subplot, concerning immigrant’s rights in the ‘Wild West”, and how Levi intervenes on their behalf to become their “Great American Friend”. Additionally, Prisca’s turn as “Su Lin” sees her enmeshed in another story-line which at least “infers” several cases of unrequited love—hers for Levi, and Han’s for her. This engenders her sensitive, introspective solo, “The Dream I Must Not Dream”, which she sumptuously and soulfully delivers later in the second act. Introducing an element of “Anti-Immigrant” menace into the mix are Jesse Trout as “Mr. Howard” and Connor Clark Pascale as his equally devious associate, “Mr. Stafford”. Looking much like a matched set of bookends in their top hats and Victorian finery, think of them as something like a cross between “Tweedle-Dee” and “Tweedle-Dum” and “Ebenezer Scrooge” and “Jacob Marley—an infamous team that would sell the very clothes off a pauper’s back (and probably have!) Both Actors are outstanding singers to boot, which they handily demonstrate with their re-emergence late in the story. Preaching racial purity and separatism (augmented with plenty of graft and double-dealing,) this they make melodically clear in their reprise of “Business Is Business”, now with an arraignment that recalls those melodramatic, overtly ’emotive’ Villain anthems or leitmotifs that frequently accompanied more sinister parts in silent movies. (“Stop thinking like a Jew!” they spit at Strauss consequent to their unexpected reunion; “And start thinking like an American!”) Laudable (if somewhat transitory) support—and a few superb ‘gag’ lines–are also supplied by Kole King as “August”, Levi’s friend who from the old country and original traveling companion. He is refused entry at Ellis Island due to illness, but remains active with his clothier-comrade “in spirit” through the many letters Strauss sends him, which act as kind of an inner-monologue, filling us in on Levi’s thoughts and feelings when he reads them out loud to us.
Kay Cole’s choreography is both subtle and elegant, portioned out in modest allotments to begin with, but when they do erupt into full-blown production numbers the fancy-footwork and exotic exchanges that enliven them are surely memorable! The opening, “Opportunity” sets the theme and the pace for the entire show. A terrific group effort, it’s bouncy, bubbly and supremely optimistic as the immigrants carol forth their intent, “To dream, to thrive—not just survive”; arriving at Ellis Island they’re greeted by a less than welcoming chorus of “Welcome To The U.S.A.” sung by a bristling band of disgruntled New Yorkers hostile that ‘more of them’ have arrived. Regardless of which side of the ‘boat-ramp’ they’re on though, this number displays some solid ensemble work and launches the going-on in a grand manner. “Business Is Business” is another preeminent addition to the score, sung by Paola Fregoso as a local Bowery Street-Walker who warbles “If there’s no cash in it, I don’t get passionate!” (You can bet writing for Disney was never like this!) Other moments of marvelous motion include the sprightly dance exchanges as part of “We Know Why”. Initiating as “Sarah” tries to teach “Levi” how to waltz (–a new dance at the time that was sweeping society) soon they’re joined by other couples making for a thoroughly charming group intermezzo. “Pay Dirt” is one more rousing group success that rockets us into Act Two sung (and danced) by the jubilant prospectors with a heapin’ hankerin’ for a down-home ‘Hootenanny’ (and that’s exactly what they give us!) Unquestionably though, Ms. Cole’s master-work for this piece is a colorful mini-ballet in the style of the Chinese Opera which portrays through dance the fall-out from the passing of “The Chinese Exclusion Act” of 1882—a law prohibiting the continued immigration and naturalization of all Chinese Immigrants, and the mass rioting and vandalism it brought about in its wake (including to the Levi Strauss Clothing Factory in San Francisco!)
On the Technical side of things, Tesshi Nakagawa’s inspired Scenic Design consists of mobile elevated platforms and unvarnished staircases that can be shifted with each different setting. Against these are projected vintage black and white ‘tin-type’ photos from the time (and the places) the action is being played out in. Moreover, Austin Quan’s Sound Design is near pristine—tailor made for the “Camino Theatre’s” Mid-size Auditorium; this is especially auspicious as the orchestra (also under the direction of Richard Allen) is situated upstage at the back, where they’re partially obscured by the ever-moving platforms. Happily, owing to Mr. Quan’s contributions, nary a note is lost or muffled—often sounding like they’re being performed merely a scant few feet away. It’s also exhilaratingly apparent that Morgan Gannes has done her research in preparing such spot-on costume designs. From the gritty dishevelment of the Gold-Miner’s coveralls and dungarees (particularly the durable ‘blue garments’ in question,) or the drab, work-a-day street-wear that resounds with hints of the home countries of the ‘tempest-tossed’, ‘wretched refuse’ of New York’s Immigrant Class who wear them, to the more colorful and ‘refined’ apparel of the upper-class enjoying the height of their “Belle Epoque”, social strata as well as time period are brilliantly reflected by way of her impeccable sartorial choices.
The tale of one ‘emblematic’ American dreamer, in a larger sense “Levi!” is really all about the “American Dream” itself. Having ‘Previewed’ on Thursday, November 16, “Levi! The Musical” officially opened on Friday, November 17, where it’s set for a limited run through Saturday December 2, 2017 in the “Camino Theatre” on the campus of at Los Angeles City College, located at 855 N. Vermont Avenue, in Los Angeles, California. Remaining show-times are Wednesday, November 29, Thursday, November 30, and Friday, December 1, at 8:00 PM with an additional Saturday matinée on December 2, at 3:00 PM. Advance tickets may be ordered exclusively on-line from Vendi Tickets by visiting:
For more information about the production, complimentary on-campus parking, or the location of the “Camino Theatre”, call (323) 953-4999 X 2990 ; or log onto:
Production Stills By Carrie Frances, Courtesy Of Michael Sterling & Associates (www.msapr.net) Kritzerland Entertainment and Los Angeles City College Theatre Academy; Special Thanks To Michael Sterling, Bruce Kimmel, Kay Cole, Richard Allen, Richard Sherman Larry Cohen, Janelle Webb Cohen–And To The Cast And Crew Of Kritzerland Entertainment and Los Angeles City College Theatre Academy’s 2017 World Premiere Production Of “Levi! The Musical” For Making This Story Possible.