“Recorded in Hollywood” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

When the band is playing and the performers are singing and stomping, Recorded in Hollywood is an infectious joy. Generally splendid performances, solid work by the band, and vigorous choreography almost make one forgive a punishingly long first act, too many dramatic lulls, and crowd scenes marred by mugging and awkward stage business.

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Recorded in Hollywood is the story of John Dolphin, a real-life Black entrepreneur, who opened a record store, Dolphin’s of Hollywood, on LA’s Central Avenue in 1948. From then until his murder 10 years later, Dolphin was an influential figure in LA’s music scene: not only was his record store successful and unique – it stayed open 24 hours a day, and served an interracial customer base when that was unusual and highly suspect in certain circles – but he also started and owned several record labels, and was a music producer responsible for a string of hits.

If Recorded in Hollywood is an accurate picture of the man – and the co-writer of the show’s book is his grandson, so we can assume at least a measure of sympathy – John Dolphin was also an egotist who could be abrupt and dismissive, and wasn’t above taking advantage of his celebrity, acquiring the nickname “Lovin’ John” for his prowess with the ladies.

All this is fodder for a fascinating and tuneful show, and the tuneful part doesn’t disappoint here. The opening number, “Ain’t We Havin’ a Time,” provides a good omen. The imaginative choreography by Cassie Crump, put into action by a limber and energetic cast, gets the show off to a raucous, rollicking start and (deservedly) wins the evening’s first ovation.

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Other standout musical numbers in the first act include “Moonlight Lane,” featuring The Coopers, a delightful female quartet; “Wheel of Fortune,” highlighting The Hollywood Flames, a male group with outrageous costumes, outrageously processed hair, and outrageously good voices and comic timing; and covers of well-known songs such as “You Send Me” and “Earth Angel.”

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However, while Andy Cooper’s original music and lyrics keep the energy up, the book, by Matt Donnelly and Jamelle Dolphin, is often opaque and confusing, giving us, paradoxically, both more and less than we need to know: while there are a number of scenes in the record shop which don’t seem to go anywhere, for example, it’s never made quite clear how Dolphin got into the recording business or how successful he was at it.

Add to that the problem that in the record shop scenes the main action in the foreground is frequently upstaged by “background” characters engaging in artificial “look-busy” movement and over-the-top facial expressions, as well as a plethora of uncertainly staged set changes and, after a while, it all becomes tough going. The second act is sharper, more focused, and (thankfully) considerably shorter.

While some of the characters are vaguely drawn – we find ourselves asking who are they and why are they important? – the performances are, by and large, excellent. Stu James plays John Dolphin, and manages to convey both the cocky, obnoxious qualities of the man without losing the charm which enabled him to do what he did. Every once in a while, James recalls a young Sammy Davis, Jr., and that energy serves him well.

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As Ruth, a young woman applying to work at Dolphin’s who catches the owner’s eye and eventually becomes his wife, Jade Johnson gives a lovely, understated performance, which nevertheless explodes with passion when needed. Johnson’s impressive singing voice is shown off beautifully in the almost-operatic lament at her husband’s grave in Act 2.

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Eric B. Anthony is screamingly funny as Percy Ivy, a worker at Dolphin’s who harbors a fierce desire to be a singer, but whose talent is perhaps best-described as Florence Foster Jenkins channeled by Urkel. However, given Percy’s eventual role in the overall drama, I can’t help wondering if emphasizing the farcical that much is the best way to go.

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Joel Daavid’s airy set, with rotating panels and a psychedelic look, gives the cast plenty of room to move in the small space, and Troy Hauschild’s projections add depth. Mylette Nora’s costumes and Alshah Williams’s hair and wigs are clever and witty. Musical director Stephan Terry does a fine job making the offstage band fully present without being overwhelming. A number of technical glitches on opening night makes me assume the lighting which occasionally kept key characters in shadow was the fault of the execution, not the design by Christina Schwinn. And, also based on opening night, the decision not to hire a sound designer seems to have been an unfortunate choice.

All in all, a very entertaining show, while acknowledging the racism and police corruption of the period. With judicious trimming – and a little more clarity to the story – Recorded in Hollywood should be a hit.

Recorded in Hollywood
Book by Matt Donnelly & Jamelle Dolphin
Music & Lyrics by Andy Cooper
Directed by Denise Dowse
Musical Direction by Stephan Terry
Choreography by Cassie Crump

Through May 17

Lillian Theatre
1076 Lillian Way
Hollywood, CA 90038

Tickets: 323-960-4443 or www.RecordedInHollywood.com


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