Seventeen year old Hayden (Keli Price) is headed to Hollywood. With a talent for lyrics and a promise from an online acquaintance who claims to be a music manager, Hayden will runaway to from his abusive step-father and alcoholic mother. He flees to Los Angeles with Luka (Rachael Page), his new girlfriend who also comes from a home life plagued with neglect and abuse. But once they land in LA, nothing is as they thought. No music manager. No money. Nowhere to go.
They find themselves adopted by a group of homeless kids. Happy (Corbin Mayberry) is the first to welcome the newbies into the fold. The rejected gay son of a preacher, he is loving and accepting but harbors a secret self-destructive self-loathing. Mama (Erica Katzin) is the Mama, literally and figuratively. A sometimey guardian of the younger kids like Sunshine (Elwie Harris), Mama is eight months pregnant, an addict and determined to keep her child, despite the temptations of comfy shelters or the perfect adoptive parents waiting in the wings. The father of her child is Drifter (Nick Teti), the quintessential hustling strummer, fellow addict, ever in good spirits, and ever able to make a buck off of a kind heart or an unsuspecting tourist. Princess (Karlee Rigby) is the rich girl who ran away from an overworked, inattentive father out of rebellion. Rounding out the motley group of homeless adolescents is Star (Lexy Panterra), sex kitty, who came to LA to be a star, but ended up turning tricks for drugs and an occasional place to crash.
Star’s beau is Vegas (Michael Leoni), the cool kid, the on again, off again leader of this band of wandering youths. Like Star, he has fallen so deep into the abyss of drugs and prostitution that he can’t find his way out. He wields equal parts fear and respect among the teens as the right hand of Ash (Shawn Parsons), a failed performer and film producer turned pimp and drug dealer. Ash makes a regular habit of assessing, and hopefully inducting, new strays into his control. Ash is very interested in Hayden. Ash sees Hayden’s musical talent and immediately begins to calculate how to exploit the naïve youth.
After two days on the street, Hayden and Luka are pulled apart, and yet they both begin to fall into the same trap of despair and drugs. It remains to be seen if they will find their way back to each other before they lose their souls to the mean streets of Los Angeles.
The Playground is an inventive mash-up of a modern day Oliver Twist and Jonathan Larson’s Rent. While Hayden is at the center of the story, the piece takes time to touch upon several different stories, illuminating the spectrum of kids and circumstances that lead to kids of all types out on the street, fending for themselves.
The verdict: the bones are there. As musical theater, The Playground is long and overwritten with way too many songs, which invariable led to some pretty uninteresting lyrics after a while. The show includes musical “hits,” song outburst that are not quite solos and not quite songs. It is an interesting devise, but not especial effective. These musical hits frequently lack dramatic motivation. Folks in musicals burst into song for a reason – because mere words have become insufficient to express the moment. Here, they simply prevented the audience from becoming immersed into the story; because you are constantly being reminded that you are watching a musical.
The relationships between the characters are also indistinctly drawn. They protect each other in one scene and betray each other in the next. The tribes’ loyalties and character motivations are blurred at best.
In terms of the production, for me, the problem was the casting. Much of the cast was young and inexperienced and clearly not ready for material of this weight. This is not to say that young performers are not good; but there is something to be said for more season actors who can identify and play the subtext, as well as the text. After all, that is where the meat of the character often lies, in the subtext. Furthermore, there were a few young performers who clear saw this show as an opportunity to sing. But again, the music in musical theatre is always in service of – an extension of - the drama. This production has moments that were sheer magic peppered in between scenes and musical numbers that lack truth. I kept wishing this show would find its rhythm and get back on track, and it never quite got there.
For me, the show’s anchors were leading man Keli Price as Hayden, as well as Nick Teti and Erica Katzin as Drifter and Mama respectively. Those were the constant, most engrossing performances of the night. Rachael Page’s Luka also possessed notable presence, giving a strong vocal performance. High marks to Designer David S. Goldstein on a remarkable, highly functional set and his ambitious lighting design. Standout musical numbers included the company number “Yesterday’s Boring”, “If I Found You” featuring Keli Price, “Finishline” featuring Nick Teti and Erica Kaztin, and the absolutely enchanting “Hiding Under Water” featuring Katzin, Page and Lexy Panterra.
The Playground: A Street Rock Musical opens November 18th and runs through December 18, 2011 at:
The Met Theatre
1089 Oxford Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90029
For reservations call: 323-960-7745