The world premiere musical about L.A.'s legendary Gold Star Studios opens San Diego Rep’s 44th season
The sign of a good new play or musical for me is how fast I rush home afterward to get online and learn more about the subject.
If other attendees of San Diego Repertory Theatre’s world premiere musical “33-1/3 — House of Dreams” are anything like me, there’s gonna be a whole lotta Googlin’ going on this month. The homegrown project, which opened Wednesday night at the Lyceum Theatre, tells the fascinating story of Gold Star Studios, the Hollywood recording studio that produced 120 Top 40 hits by some of the music industry’s biggest stars from 1950 to 1984.
Even if you haven’t heard of Gold Star, you know the music produced there, including many of producer Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” recordings and hits by the Beach Boys, Ike and Tina Turner, the Righteous Brothers, Herb Alpert, Sonny and Cher and literally hundreds more.
Many of these legends sing and dance their way through the peppy, 2-1/2-hour musical, thanks in no small part to 25 multi-talented students from the San Diego School for Creative and Performing Arts.
But the musical is really about the two men who founded Gold Star, high school buddies Stan Ross, the likable promoter with a great ear for music, and David S. Gold, the self-taught engineering genius whose homemade echo chambers and mixing boards revolutionized the recording industry.
The musical’s book was written by San Diego dentist Brad Ross, son of the late Stan Ross, and playwright/musician Jonathan Rosenberg, with additional script assistance from two Rep musical veterans: Javier Velasco, who also directed and choreographed the show, and Steve Gunderson, who served as musical director and arranger.
Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper is warm and engaging as the driven Ross, who puts music ahead of his marriage, family and friendship with Gold until after the company’s demise. Jacob Caltrider plays Gold as an affable, quirky and patient inventor whose constant worry and stress led to health problems.
Gold Star became a mecca for top American acts because it was one of the country’s first recording studios that created its own characteristic sound — a warm, blended mix of reverb, audio double-tracking and other one-of-a-kind techniques.
The studio’s output began with ‘50s doo-wop groups and wound down as the ‘80s rock era dawned. The studio eventually shut down when it failed to modernize with digital equipment, sending both sound engineers and artists to other more-modern studios. Gold Star last just over 33 years in business, which — along with the 33-1/3 RPM records it produced — explains the musical’s title.
The score is packed-to-bursting with 32 songs, almost all of them recorded at Gold Star, including “Good Vibrations,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Tequila” and “Unchained Melody.” Some are just snippets sung as background music, some arrive during the post-show bows, but a glorious few are full-length, big-cast powerhouse set pieces.
Big-voiced SCPA student Janae Parson stuns as the shimmying Tina Turner in the full-length “River Deep Mountain High”; precise hand choreography and period costumes create an endearing snapshot in time with The Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me”; and best of all is the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” where the audience watches the hyper-controlling Spector (played with a wonderful eccentricity by Collin Leydon) gradually assemble piece by piece the studio’s first “wall of sound” recording.
While most of the songs are faithfully performed — many impressively so — to sound like the originals, Gunderson’s clever arrangements offer a fresh interpretation of old classics. The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” is looped for two male voices in unusual harmony and Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” and Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” are neatly overlapped in one dual number.
Enhancing all of the songs are period costumes by Jennifer Brawn Gittings and an offstage orchestra of SCPA student musicians conducted by Tamara Paige. Blake McCarty’s historic projections help establish the timeline on the walls of Sean Fanning’s simple studio scenic design. Philippe Bergman designed lighting and Matt Lescault-Wood designed sound.
With a gold-record score, the music in “House of Dreams” is rock-solid. But the script needs more work.
The show opens at a rehearsal for a 1984 documentary video in the days after Gold Star shut down. Did this video ever really happen or is it just a theatrical framing device to set the scene for a look back? Unfortunately, the intro is long, loud, frenetic and confusing, so the first 10 or so minutes are a blur.
Some sections of the Gold Star story are told with care and clarity, like how Gold developed his famous echo chambers and what made Gold Studios so special. But there are other plot points that seem rushed or missing, particularly in the second act. What happened to Gold after his heart attack? And what did Ross do after the studio closed?
The script also has a number of corny puns and one-liners that could go, as well as some musical theater cliches, like the “In Crowd” mop-as-mikestand choreography sung by the show’s versatile supporting cast members Michael Parrot, Christine Hewitt and Ron Christopher Jones.
In the first act, the wives of Ross and Gold are one-dimensional comic characters. Ross’ long-suffering wife, Vera, played by Aviva Pressman, is eventually fleshed out in act two, but Gold’s wife Mitzi (Bethany Slomka) remains a bubbly cartoon to the end.
Gold Star Studios is a great subject for a musical, and a great musical is waiting inside “House of Dreams.” Like a raw recording, it just needs some more mixing and fine-tuning to give it a less-rushed and more-coherent throughline.
‘33 1/3 — House of Dreams’
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Some exceptions; check with theater.) Extended through Sept. 1.
Where: San Diego Rep’s Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.
Tickets: $25-$72 (discounts available)
Phone: (619) 544-1000