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Up Here

The Oscar-winning husband-and-wife songwriters of Frozen create a musical about complicated love.

Matt Bittner and Betsy Wolfe in the world-premiere musical Up Here, directed by Alex Timbers, at La Jolla Playhouse.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Though Up Here is Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez's first full stage musical as a team, the expectations are astronomical. Lopez is one of only 12 EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winners in history — the T being for two monumental Broadway shows, Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, and the O for partnering with Anderson-Lopez on the enduring anthem "Let It Go" from the hit animated film Frozen. The Lopezes wrote the music, lyrics, and book for Up Here and have partnered with Peter and the Starcatcher director Alex Timbers to create a risky venture.

Computer technician Dan (Matt Bittner) develops a crush on one of his clients, Lindsay (Betsy Wolfe), and musters the courage to ask her out. They fall in love, but Dan's insecurities get in his way and the two sour on each other. The twist of Up Here is that the authors have personified Dan's consciousness. While Pinocchio had Jiminy Cricket to teach him to "Wish Upon a Star," Dan has just the opposite in his head: a crew of cruel, negative parasites that sabotage him at every step. The Critic (Jeff Hiller), Cool Girl (Gizel Jimenez), Humbug (Devere Rogers), and Cool Guy (Andrew Call) mock Dan, belittle his relationship with Lindsay, and sing songs like "Don't You Just Hate Dan?" Though he does have several supportive voices, like Mr. Can-Do (Devin Ratray), Dan, like most people, gives more credence to his hostile voices.

The musical wants the audience to identify with Dan, but the problem is he's just not a likable character. His inner demons are so pronounced that instead of appearing like an everyman who is conflicted by his thoughts, he comes off as mentally ill and potentially dangerous. More incongruous, Wolfe portrays Lindsay as a confident risk-taker who understands her self-worth, and it remains unclear what she sees in Dan, a closed-off, awkward guy who refuses to communicate.

The book also focuses on Lindsay's brother Tim's proclamation that "There's No Such Thing as the Number One." Tim (Eric Petersen) keeps harping on his quixotic mantra to everyone's consternation. When the meaning is exposed in a big musical number, it is meant to be a revelation, but it's one that's neither new nor illuminating. Much time is also spent discussing a rock that sits in the middle of Central Park, which holds significance for both protagonists, but that conceit also doesn't go anywhere new.

Unlike "Frozen," which contained several endearing and clever songs including the wistful "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" and the hilarious "Fixer Upper," not many of the songs in Up Here are substantial. The melodies are bland without hooks to differentiate them and the lyrics are not quirky or shrewd enough to be memorable.

Bittner is given a gargantuan task of making Dan relatable despite the script issues; this proves to be too difficult a task. He seems adrift in his circumstances. Bittner has a stout voice, but he had issues hitting the pitch on some notes. Wolfe, on the other hand, has a lyrical singing voice and charm for days. She treats Lindsay as a grounded, tender person. The rest of the cast, including Tim and Lindsay's ex-boyfriends, are vehicles for the protagonists to react to, rather than fully realized characters.

Director Timbers has become the go-to guy for unconventionality. Both Starcatcher and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson were inventive, artistic successes. Here, however, his whimsy works against the play, distancing the audience from Dan when it intends to draw them closer. In Act 2, both characters reveal their feelings to separate therapists. Instead of digging deep into their psyches, the show pulls an audience member onstage for Dan and Lindsay to project their fears and anger onto. It's meant to be a bit of crowd-pleasing comedy, but it comes off false and feels like a lost opportunity to delve into Dan's humanity when the audience needs it most.

The Lopezes' musical is reminiscent of the recent Disney/Pixar movie Inside Out (so much so that the writers even joke about it in the show). But where the animated film illuminates young Riley by disclosing the personified emotions inside, Up Here only clarifies why Dan is an unsuccessful protagonist for a musical comedy.