‘Volume’ Lacks Insight, But Don’t Miss the Spectacle

The cast of San Diego Musical Theatre’s ‘Pump Up the Volume: a ’90s Palooza’ shows its true – uh – colors. Photos by Ken Jacques.

Saturday, Aug. 12 marks the 23rd anniversary of the start of Woodstock ‘94, designed to emulate the 1969 mother of all concerts and billed as “two more days of peace and music.” Incessant rain at the Saugerties, N.Y. site earned the event the moniker Mudstock, but it had one thing the original didn’t — Bob Dylan, whose “Everybody Must Get Stoned” sent the crowd of 400,000 into hysterics.

Some things never change. Hee!

In the abstract, the concert was a defining moment of the decade. The 1990s were a blur of self-discovery, sociopolitical angst, wholesale multiculturalism and the music that fed them. The latter is one of the cool things about San Diego Musical Theatre’s Pump Up the Volume: a ‘90s Palooza, a world-premiere nod to what The New York Times called “the best decade ever.”

As a spectacle, it rivals the magnificent MixTape, Lamb’s Players Theatre’s nod to the sounds of the 1980s that exploded its way to 1,913 extensions earlier this decade (helmer Colleen Kollar Smith and music director Jon Lorenz, both late of Lamb’s, created both shows).

The difference is that, while MixTape was billed as a nod to ‘80s music, this one mildly delves into ‘90s consciousness — to that extent, it could use a skosh more meat on its otherwise very hardy bones.

Willie (Edred Utomi) gives DJ Jazzy Jeff a run for his money as the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Seven young strangers cross paths in the early 21st century to occupy time and space in the ‘90s as they navigate young adulthood. For them, the decade is a blank canvas, with technology, fashion, leisure and politics converging in semi-innocent hope in the first minutes and sobering disillusionment in the last.

Yahoo! was tracking it all online in the kids’ brave new universe. Cellphones, first marketed in the 1970s, were big and ugly, and service pretty much bit everybody’s butt — but now, they were almost here, proof positive that the nation’s birthright lay in instant communication. As The Backstreet Boys, Mark (Joshua David Cavanaugh), Rico (James Royce Edwards), Biz (Leonard Patton) and Willie (Edred Utomi) belt out a take on “I Want It That Way” fit for the fledgling Internet. Ditto Lanny (Brielle Batino), Alicia (Cassie B) and Dee (Janaya Mahealani Jones) in their turn with Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On.”

To a certain point, revues like this are pretty much critic-proof, because they fuel memories that may or may not resonate with everybody the same way. While we all remember TV’s Friends and The X Files (both of which get their due here), nuances from songs like Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” Smashmouth’s “All Star” and Aerosmith’s “Livin’ on the Edge” evoke vastly different situational contexts.

That means there’s something for absolutely everybody here amid the nearly 180 brushes with the era’s tunes, and these performers are bustin’ out all over, relishing every last note and rest.

[I]n the process, (Smith and Lorenz) may have sacrificed some important content.

Here’s the bad news: While Lorenz’s music direction is tailor-made for Smith’s beautifully fluid choreography, crucial logistics do find themselves overlooked.

The colossal decadelong rise of country music as a rock crossover gets only two very brief nods, in the form of Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart” and Shania Twain’s “I Feel Like a Woman.” References to classic markers like The Shawshank Redemption and Titanic are either fleeting or parodistic.

Monica Lewinsky’s and O. J. Simpson’s images are highly appropriate in act two, but so are the ones we never get to see. Smith and Lorenz have a tough row to hoe in selecting the heft within each mix — in the process, they may have sacrificed some important content.

Patton proves yet again why he’s one of San Diego’s most durable and notable vocalists, while Utomi impresses with Willie’s breezy “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” et al. Batino is spellbinding amid her stunning “I Will Always Love You” — the number underscores this show’s unbreakable ensemble culture amid Michael McKeon’s chameleon of a set, Taylor Peckham’s knock-down five-piece band, Christina Martin’s championship lighting and Janet Pitcher’s costumes (there are no less than one million of them in this piece).

All elements masterfully converge near show’s end in an obliging turn on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” blisteringly sung in real life by Kurt Cobain.

’90s vs. ’20s: No question which decade comes out on top, or so says Marty.

In 1994, 27-year-old Cobain’s body was found at his Seattle home; while his death was ruled a gun suicide, some quarters suggest he was murdered. Four years later, an American president would be charged with perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from an alleged instance of sexual harassment.

A third Woodstock festival was held in 1999, featuring several incidences of arson and rape and the burning of an American flag during a number by Rage Against the Machine. Not long before, a mass murder at a Colorado high school would mark what for some was the nation’s latest social collapse.

“The best decade ever”? Hardly. That honor belongs to the 1920s, roaring amid a postwar exuberance the likes of which this country has never seen since. I sadly wasn’t around then, but I certainly was here for the ‘90s, and I remember them in their entirety — while Pump Up the Volume might not always reflect the cultural insight that birthed their sound and fury, it gets a solid A for its provocative presentation.

To however limited an extent, art does imitate life here. And that’s a true compliment. Nice show.

This review is based on the matinee performance of Aug. 6. Pump Up the Volume: a ‘90s Palooza runs through Sept. 10 at the Horton Grand Theatre, 444 Fourth Ave. downtown. $25-$60. sdmt.org, (858) 560-5740.

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