Disillusionment Meets Literary Allusion in ‘The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical’

Contraceptives, literate children, funding for the arts, radical mercy, and weed. The demands of The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical are specific and intentional, told through the life story and experiences (real or fabricated) of the infamous titular Gonzo journalist himself. The production, a world premiere with music and lyrics by Joe Iconis and book by Joe Iconis and Gregory S. Moss, catches the wild ride that is Thompson’s career and pairs it with a vibrant rock score. The musical runs at La Jolla Playhouse through October 8.

Hunter sings, surrounded by imaginary characters from inside his head, recollections from a time in his life.

The cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of  The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical. Photo by Rich Soublet II.

Thompson, best known for his Rolling Stone piece Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is a controversial character and unreliable narrator at best, and possibly unhinged at worst. Capturing a bit of his chaos in recollection format, this new musical, directed by Christopher Ashley, gathers the audience together at his hometown of Louisville and ushers them through his most iconic moments: the summer he spent re-typing The Great Gatsby, a beating at the hands of Hell’s Angels, a failed run at Sheriff, a trip to the Kentucky Derby, a drug-laden swing through a Las Vegas law enforcement convention, and his ongoing struggle to reconcile the America he experienced with the American dream he believed he was owed. The storyline is one of political activism and shattered idealism, a rivalry with Richard M. Nixon, and navigation through the toxic underbelly of America via exposé.

While the story is implied to take place inside of Thompson’s (Gabriel Ebert) head, scenes heavily feature his family, friends, colleagues, and a variety of extreme characters crafted by a talented cast which includes George Abud (Nixon), Jeannette Bayardelle (Jann), Josiah Cajudo (Puppeteer), Giovanny Diaz De Leon (The Kid), Marcy Harriell (Sandy), Lorinda Lisitza (Virginia), Lauren Marcus (Flower Child), George Salazar (Oscar), Ryan Vona (Juan), Jason SweetTooth Williams (Steadman), understudies Josh Alvarez, Summer Broyhill, Kürt Norby, and Nio Russell, and who are joined onstage by a tight 5-piece band (Rick Edinger, Rob Whitlock, Nikko Nobleza, Michael Pearce, and Joel Alpers). This group of performers is wholly outstanding, each contributing something unique to the experience that is Hunter S. Thompson live and unfiltered.

Hunter types at his typewriter

Gabriel Ebert as Hunter in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of  The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical. Photo by Rich Soublet II.

Moments that stand out include Giovanny Diaz De Leon’s goosebump-stirring vocals in “The Typewriter Song,” the quixotic and hopeful Act I-ending “Wavesong,” and Ryan Vona’s tender and nuanced 11th hour ballad “Hey Dad,” as well as solo moments by Bayardelle, Harriell, Salazar, and Williams peppered throughout the production. I also found Ebert and Abud to be worthy adversaries as Thompson and Nixon, their chapter-punctuating face-offs snide, humorous, and effective at creating a cohesive conflict to hold the story together, and Abud’s second act tune, “Richard Nixon’s Big Number,” is delightful and outlandish.


The show’s havoc is even more effective when framed within Hunter’s grandiose Colorado living space, built on the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre stage by scenic designer Wilson Chin. Chin’s design of gaps in the boards, knots, holes, guns, lamps, paintings, well-worn furniture, and bric-a-brac are seemingly random at first, but used to great effect by choreographer Jon Rua, director Christopher Ashley, lighting designer Amanda Zieve, and sound designer Justin Stasiw. Additionally, the integration of puppets by Animal Cracker Conspiracy is concurrently bizarre and brilliant… and therefore perfect for the story. And, in truth, it is the intentionality of the many parts that makes the whole so interesting: expect smoke, falling set pieces, Dexadrine powder, a sequined peacock, broken glass, and choreographed percussive typewriter strikes that set the scene for gunshots. In a nutshell, expect the unexpected.

Hunter transcribes The Great Gatsby.

The cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of  The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical. Photo by Rich Soublet II.

Thinking back, I am most impressed by the writing team who have so cleverly navigated the inside of Hunter’s head and his interactions with others, unabashedly exposing his fears, frustrations, goals, and dreams while crafting a bigger story. In their hands, lines like “an adjective can make a line ignite,” “I do believe writing is the most potent weapon; I just wish change would happen faster,” and “for a man who uses his words as much as you use your words, you’d think you’d choose your words more carefully” abound, and the tie-ins of literary allusion from Fitzgerald and Hemingway to Aristotle seem effortless.

And somehow, in their hands, the story of this overtly unlikeable, disillusioned artist of the written word somehow, unbelievably, leaves me wanting to “sail toward the next wave” with just a little bit more spirit and fire.

The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical runs through October 8 at La Jolla Playhouse.

Read the program.

1 A B C D E G I J L M N O P Q R S T U W
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La Jolla Playhouse
2910 La Jolla Village Drive La Jolla CA 92037 USA Work Phone: 858.550.1010 Website: La Jolla Playhouse website
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