By Nathaniel Cayanan
This past weekend, Pasadena Playhouse premiered Breaking Through, a new musical that explores today’s music industry machine and the sacrifices young artists have to make to “break through.” Directed by Sheldon Epps and based on the book by Kirsten Guenther, Breaking Through follows young musician Charlie Jane (played by Alison Luff), who is challenged by the allures of fame. As the unrelenting entertainment industry drains her of her soul, she struggles to hold onto her personal relationships, artistic identity, and integrity.
The story itself is nothing new, nor is its themes. In fact, Breaking Through at times feels like it’s just going through the motions of the “price of fame” storyline. Occasionally, it borders on cliché, while trying very hard to be relevant with the use of “clever” references to cronuts, Trader Joe’s, Kickstarter and other trending topics of the day. What results is a narrative that never really stays with you, nor consistently resonates on a deeper level. Perhaps this is due to the musical’s heavy-handed delivery of the message that you must give more than your art to gain fame, that your failure in the industry is due to the typical narrow-minded vultures at the executive level, and that it’s not really because of your personal failures, but everyone else who just sucks the life out of you, that you can’t make it in this business. This is what prevents Breaking Through from reaching the status of its predecessors such as Jersey Boys, which was more a character study. Breaking Through is more a direct rebuke of the music industry.
Yet, in spite of these momentary lapses of originality, the production is never dull, and more acts as a showcase of some wonderful stage talent. Alison Luff, who most recently played Miss Honey in Broadway’s Matilda, successfully balances the complex emotions a young artist goes through, as she goes from starry eyed to disenchanted, lending at the same time a truly beautiful voice to some wonderfully written and composed songs, courtesy of Emmy-winning songwriter Cliff Downs and Katie Kahanovitz.
Equally as mesmerizing is Kacee Clanton, who plays Karina, the washed-up pop star who tries to warn Charlie of the ravenous, cold nature of the music business. Clanton, who played alternate lead as Janis Joplin for the acclaimed musical A Night with Janis Joplin, owns the stage when she performs “Letting Go” and “Breathe In,” to the point where, when you realize her songs have ended, you immediately long for her return. Other standouts are Matt Magnusson (Scorpio), Will Collyer (Smith) and Nita Whitaker (Amanda), who belts out a stirring tune in the song “For the Best.”
Additionally, the choreography adds incredible vitality to the show, with dance numbers that are quite entertaining and mirror the energetic, yet artificial popstar culture with which we are so saturated. We can thank choreographer Tyce Diorio and his ensemble cast for adding that extra flare to already marvelous musical numbers.
Overall, while this production never soars due to its fairly basic narrative, with strong performances and entertaining music and dancing, this brand new musical has no problem “breaking through.”
Breaking Through will play until Nov. 22nd, 2015, at Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena. Show days and times are Tuesday through Friday evenings at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $87, plus premium seating at $125 and can be purchased online at www.pasadenaplayhouse.org, by phone at (626) 356-7529, or in-person at the Box Office.