Alison Luff and the ensemble of Breaking Through, directed by Sheldon Epps, at Pasadena Playhouse.
Alison Luff and the ensemble of Breaking Through, directed by Sheldon Epps, at Pasadena Playhouse.
(© Jim Cox)

Struggling singer Charlie Jane wants to find her voice. She writes songs that speak to her frustrations growing up as the daughter of a failed artist, and she wants to reach other youngsters. Sleazy producers, egotistical colleagues, and her own insecurities stand in her way in the new musical Breaking Through at the Pasadena Playhouse, helmed by its artistic director, Sheldon Epps .Though it is laudable for a major theater to invest in a new work with original music, Breaking Through never navigates away from show-business clichés.

Charlie (Alison Luff) was raised by her father after her backup-singer mother disappeared years ago. She guilts her mother's old friend Amanda (Nita Whitaker) into signing her at Solo Records, where Amanda is an executive. Amanda takes Charlie under her wing, linking her to Solo's hot artist Scorpio and having her mentor with the label's legend, Karina (Kacee Clanton). But Charlie begins to fall into the same traps that her mother did. She allows the label's repugnant boss, Jed Barnes (Robert Arbogast), to turn her into just another prop, singing others' songs that have no depth, pretend-dating Scorpio for publicity sake, and taking drugs to keep up a hectic schedule.

Composers Cliff Downs and Katie Kahanovitz both came from the music industry. Downs has cowritten songs for top country artists like Wynonna Judd and Glen Campbell while Kahanovitz has performed on the Radio Disney Tour. With their credentials, one would hope the show would expose the inner workings of the music industry, but Breaking Through offers nothing that hasn't been seen countless times before.

Some of Downs and Kahanovitz's melodies are catchy and give the actors a chance to show off their vocal pipes, but too often the lyrics reel off like strung-together platitudes, with no subtlety to the phrasings or soulful interpretations of the characters' emotions. Protagonist Charlie claims several times to have a hunger to explore the truth through music, yet when she does sing her own songs, such as the opening title number, she admits only to wanting her name in lights and to break out as a star. None of the songs she sing reveal anything reflective about her.

Kirsten Guenther's book also misses several opportunities for drama. Charlie's absent mother becomes a plot device instead of a means of delving into Charlie's abandonment. Scorpio hints at his childhood, but the script doesn't investigate how his upbringing turned him into the self-involved pop artist. Amanda's relationship to both Charlie and her mother are left dangling. And a B-plot involving Charlie's best friend Gwyn (Teya Patt) goes nowhere. Every plot point lacks the edge or twist that would have prevented it sounding banal.

Fortunately, director Epps has a talented cast of singers onstage. Luff has an engaging personality and her country twang reveals both innocence and vulnerability. Matt Magnusson embodies a boy band singer in his solo number "All or Nothin'." Clanton has that sultriness that captures Janis Joplin. Patt's character is the one with which the writers would have done well to spend more time. Her performance as Gwyn, Charlie's lesbian roommate, is spirited, awkward, and genuinely funny. Every time she walks onstage, the show comes alive. Unfortunately, the cast's acting suffers because the unenergetic and uninspired book makes them unrealistically wooden.

John Iacovelli's sets are appropriately cold and steely to represent the loneliness of success. Jared A. Sayeg's lighting, however, lacked nuance, with constant spots beaming down on the performers the whole evening as though they were in an '80s hair band music video. And Tyce Diorio's choreography looks disjointed, with the chorus making wild hand and leg movements.

While television has turned the music industry into a wild and saucy soap opera with Fox's Empire and ABC's Nashville, Breaking Through doesn't offer the stories and the tunes to entice audiences with anything new pertaining to the heartbreak of celebrity. It feels like the same old song.