Theater review: 'Making Paradise: The West Hollywood Musical!" at Fiesta Hall
“Making Paradise: The West Hollywood Musical!” should best be approached as a labor of community love. A fitting climax to the yearlong celebration of West Hollywood’s 25th anniversary of cityhood, the piece kick-starts Cornerstone Theater Company’s silver anniversary season with a fictionalized flashback on how little WeHo gained its municipal independence in 1984.
The production, now at Fiesta Hall in Plummer Park under the direction of artistic director Michael John Garcés and Mark Valdez, is as joyous, inspiring and, yes, boisterous and sloppy as the democratic process it commemorates. Proud WeHo residents, myself among them, no doubt will be more forgiving of the unwieldy narrative and the scratchy quality of the ensemble. But the score by Deborah Wicks La Puma (music) and Shishir Kurup (lyrics) provides some frolicsome delight, and there's something fabulously uplifting about a tale of communal self-determination, even for those living outside the story's progressive ZIP Codes.
Creating theater in collaboration with community has been Cornerstone’s raison d’être. So it only makes sense that a show featuring a number of trailblazers from the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community would routinely break into song. (You want musical theater pizazz, walk around Boys Town after dark and feel the Santa Monica Boulevard sidewalk practically transforming into a stage under your feet.) This is Cornerstone’s first original book musical, and although its mix of professional performers with ardent amateurs can sometimes resemble a mediocre church choir, the exuberance is infectious.
The book by playwright Tom Jacobson (whose recent work includes “The Friendly Hour” and "The Twentieth-Century Way”) begins in 2009 with a reunion of the leaders who spearheaded the cityhood effort. These characters, still bickering about corruption and compromise a quarter-century later, appoint others at their old diner hangout to play their younger selves as the scene transforms to 1983. (This Brechtian framework allows the present to freely question and challenge the past.)
Politics being the art of the possible, the utopian dreams of these pioneering idealists quickly devolve into an alliance of common interests. How do you get seniors, Soviet immigrants, bohemian straights and sexual outlaws to unite? Two words: rent control.
Jacobson captures the messiness of the uphill battle, the way internecine strife was almost as obstructive as the opposition of landlords and business owners dead-set against an autonomous West Hollywood. In this respect, “Making Paradise” vaguely recalls “The Normal Heart,” Larry Kramer’s contentious drama of early AIDS activists, even though the musical is more conspicuously indebted to “Rent.” Think of this Cornerstone offering as a low-budget cousin to Jonathan Larson’s Tony-winner, performed by an ensemble that makes up in authenticity what it lacks in chops.
Derek Manson, who plays Curly, the promiscuous troublemaker who’d rather cruise men than apply his sharp legal mind to the collective struggle, is the standout in the cast in terms of musical theater talent. But perhaps grit is a better criterion for judging this company. And by this measure, Desiree Jade Sol, who plays transgendered Maria, Diana Mera, who plays linchpin organizer Henri, and Bahni Turpin, who plays the older and more cynical Henri, leave memorable impressions. Also deserving of nods are Chris Farah in the role of Desiree, the aspiring actress who becomes a human bullhorn as the politics turn dirty, Gillian Doyle as the corporately hardened 2009 Desiree, and Peter Howard, who portrays young Desiree's boyfriend Yuri, a Russian photographer with few words but muscular sentiments.
Like a politician placating every imaginable special interest, the musical tries to cover too much ground. And the plot that Jacobson concocts, roiling with a secret that bursts out in the overwrought style of a black-and-white melodrama, is unnecessarily cumbersome for a work whose historical subject is the main appeal.
As with any American city, “Making Paradise” would have benefited from more careful planning. But there’s something serendipitous in the show’s looseness — a witty song here, a bracingly honest interaction there — that makes this a worthwhile visit for those already sympathetically inclined.
-- Charles McNulty
"Making Paradise: The West Hollywood Musical!" Fiesta Hall, Plummer Park, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 7. $20. www.cornerstonetheater.org. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Photos: Top: The cast in a scene from "Making Paradise." Bottom: Derek Manson. Credit: John C. Luker