Ambitious and creative, Coronado Playhouse’s newest production, “Underground,” tells the stories of the regulars at an eponymously named dive bar.
Set, “Today or tomorrow in your favorite, local dive bar,” this brand new musical, created in collaboration with the Blindspot Collective, a San Diego theater production company, aims to construct an immersive and boundary breaking musical theater experience.
Community Center to dive bar
Standing in line you can’t help but notice the loud pop music blasting from the building and streams of colorful neon lights emanating out the front door. Once inside, what used to be the Coronado Community Center is now, what appears to be, a fully functioning dive bar. People are playing beer pong, sports are being projected directly onto the wall as well as on TVs and there’s a full bar selling basic cocktails and bottled beer; it’s instantly teleportative.
The barrier between production and reality blur as cast members in bar uniforms usher viewers to their seats, a dense collection of bar tables dispersed around the room, and more cast members run the till and serve waiting guests their drinks.
The immersive experience is instantly grappling and entertaining, but as soon as the lights go down and the actors reveal themselves, the illusion of immersion begins to crumble.
The actors employ the entire room, with the focus centering on a character in one part of the room and then jumping to someone’s story on the other side of the room, which sounds cool in concept, except that there are so many tables and chairs squeezed into the space that in order to see everything, audience members are constantly turning in their chairs, looking over their shoulders to see what is happening behind them or in another corner of the bar.
In addition, there are few clearly discernible visual or audio cues to direct the audience’s attention to where the action is coming from. Sometimes two characters would start talking, and I would have to wildly scan the room, twisting left and right in my chair, to figure out who was talking and what direction it was coming from.
Some seats are so close together that every time you move you’re elbowing someone next to you or brushing your legs with someone else.
Narrative divided into vignettes
The narrative is divided into vignettes with each character or group of characters performing a broadway-style musical number describing where they are in their lives and what led them to the bar.
There’s very little overarching narrative and practically nothing tying anyone’s stories together except for a burgeoning romance between two of the bartenders, a new hipster-patron who likes to people watch and conjecture about their lives, and the simple, yet high-concept idea that everyone is existing in the same space together.
A vignette-style “slice-of-life” story is an effective, cerebral way of connecting unrelated characters through themes of shared human experience; the Old Globe’s recent production of “Passengers” did a similar thing except it was about train passengers, not bar patrons.
But “Underground” has too many characters and too shallow of themes to convincingly pull it off. Some of the characters have memorable, non-conventional stories; there’s the washed up members of a local rock band and a lesbian who’s wife cheated and ran out on her after a short-lived Las Vegas marriage, but the others have typically cliché, white, Gen-X problems: broken marriages, toxic relationships, and small-town suburban drama.
Almost all of the characters perform a musical number to address their backgrounds (except the grad student whose entire character is just reading Emily Dickinson in a packed bar, how quirky), but rarely do they interact with each other or translate any homogenous themes. Sometimes a character will drop a one-liner or tumblr inspired aphorism, half-ironically complaining of the struggles of white suburbia, but most of these quotes and themes appear only momentarily and don’t reappear.
Plot takes place between songs
The plot that takes place in between songs and across the play is about Annie, a young bartender who is constantly disappointed by the lackluster men she dates, and her coworker Nick, who’s convinced that he’s the “nice guy” she needs in her life. He expresses his affection for her by stealing her phone, berating her choice of boyfriends, and bullying her for not recognizing him as a “nice guy” who deserves to be her paramore.
Although the actors themselves work well together and seem to be trying their best, the two characters, as written, have no chemistry and the scenes of their ‘blossoming romance’ are cringe-inducing and bland. It’s obvious from their first scene that they will inevitably end up together and it’s unsatisfying to see a character like Nick rewarded for his entitled and incel-like behavior.
The musical numbers from the show are derived from the discography of Ben Folds, a singer-songwriter of the Y2K era, whose strength lies in composing likable melodies, but just about nothing else.
The playbill describes him as “one of the major music influencers of our generation,” yet his career highlights seem to be contributing songs for the oh-so-popular and memorable animated films, “Hoodwinked” and “Over the Hedge,” as well as mediocre critical reception and record sales.
His music as a solo-artist and as part of the band Ben Folds Five is stylistically derivative of Webber or Schwartz era Broadway and his general aesthetic elicits the same as Weezer’s, up to to the thick-rimmed glasses of Rivers Cuomo. For the creators of the show to bond over their niche, theater-kid musical inspiration is neat, but to revere its influence so highly just over-hypes the quality of the music and leads anyone listening for musical ingenuity towards disappointment.
Talented and expressive cast
Fortunately, the talented and expressive cast elevates the forgettable songs.
The singing ability of the cast breathes life into the song-writing and provides quality entertainment.
Shane Hennessey impressively jumps between his lower range and his head voice with ease, and Sarah Jane Salonga sings with a reverberating vibrato that imbues her melodies with much needed human flavor. It was a joy to listen to these players sing and give their performances their all. The quality of acting and singing matched the ambition and ingenuity imbued into the concept of “Underground,’ maintaining its vitality over the course of its two-hour run time.
The concept for “Underground” is ingenious and the effort involved in bringing it to life is palpable, but the weaknesses lie in the development of the narrative and execution of physical logistics of the production. “Underground” has been extended through July 30, offering those who haven’t seen it a chance to experience a creative and innovative play that falls short at times.
“Underground” is playing at Coronado Playhouse Thursdays through Sunday until July 30. Single tickets start at $24. The Playhouse is at 1835 Strand Way.