Arts

Review: La Mirada Theatre’s ‘Mystic Pizza’ Compels as a Coming-of-Age Musical

(L-R) Gianna Yanelli, Krystina Alabado, Kyra Kennedy, and Rayanne Gonzales in La Mirada Theatre's production of "Mystic Pizza." Photo by Jason Niedle

Two-and-a-half years since its world premiere at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine, Mystic Pizza, the musical, has made its West Coast premiere at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, propelled by the return of most of its principals. Based on the under-the-radar 1988 film starring a 20-year-old Julia Roberts, the jukebox musical rendition written by Sandy Rustin has been further reworked since its debut, which includes updates to the film and a deeper exploration of three closeknit Portuguese American young women, two of whom are sisters. In the charming seaport of Mystic, Connecticut, these women share a mutual support and employment at the town’s pizza shop as they navigate their disparate desires, relationships with men, and their growing bond with each other. The result is a mostly positive one, as uniquely arranged nostalgic tunes of the 80s and 90s surround a fun and light-hearted coming-of-age journey.

(L-R) Gianna Yanelli and Jordan Friend in La Mirada Theatre’s production of Mystic Pizza. Photo by Jason Niedle

Casey Hushion directs the trajectories of characters Daisy (Krystina Alabado) and Kat Arujo (Kyra Kennedy), along with their best friend Jojo (Gianna Yanelli). Compared to the “smart one” Kat, who is naïve and straitlaced, Daisy is more unfiltered and unrestrained, but not necessarily any more than Jojo, a fireball of energy and spontaneity. Jojo, moreover, has personal ambitions of her own which lead to rejecting her marriage to fisherman Bill (Jordan Friend) at the altar. Following this opening-scene development, Kat soon meets an older, married man in Tim, an architect (Chris Cardozo) and Daisy gets the attention of white-collared rich kid Charles Gordon Windsor Jr. (Michael Thomas Grant) at the Peg Leg Pub. The drama that unfolds is observed and commented on (or more appropriately sung about) by the girls’ second mother, Leona, the owner of Mystic Pizza (Rayanne Gonzales).

(L-R) Jordan Friend, Gianna Yanelli, Krystina Alabado, and Michael Thomas Grant in La Mirada Theatre’s production of Mystic Pizza. Photo by Jason Niedle

Gonzales is a ray of light as the highly personable Leona who enhances numbers like Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” with her vivacity and reach-for-the-sky vocalizations. Interestingly, unlike the film, Leona is an unmarried immigrant in the musical and is seeking the sale of Mystic Pizza due to financially non-recoupable lulls in the tourist offseason. Louis Pardo portrays realtor Lionel, contributing to an ingenious add-on plot device that gives the narrative’s outcome greater anticipatory weight.

Krystina Alabado, who dazzled as Dot in last year’s Sunday in the Park with George, makes for a headstrong Daisy who just needs slight prodding to discover she is much more intelligent than she gives herself credit for. Alabado sees her character’s arc to fruition and has a ball doing it — bringing an effortless emotional ballast to a flurry of songs, including Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m the Only One.” Alabado also shares an evocative romantic tension with Michael Thomas Grant’s Charles who is taking a “vacation” from law school and has a contentious relationship with his dad. Grant, who became a staple comedic performer at the now-defunct Rockwell Table & Stage, evinces his dramatic chops here, particularly shining with his gritty rock ‘n’ roll vocals.

(L-R) Kyra Kennedy and Chris Cardozo in La Mirada Theatre’s production of Mystic Pizza. Photo by Jason Niedle

Gianna Yanelli, who goes beyond the pages written about her character, is one of the musical’s standout performers as the spunky and sexually voracious Jojo. It would be all too easy to make Jojo a caricature, but Yanelli gives her persona multiple dimensions, one of which is that her Jojo is taken seriously as an empowered individual who needs time before a life-changing commitment. Jordan Friend, as Bill, complements Yanelli’s unceasing energy and believably conveys his character’s wish to get married as opposed to being used as sexual relief in uncommon places. In contrast with, and a welcome change over the film given Mystic Pizza’s newfound musicality, Bill has a band, which is used seamlessly to highlight the ensemble — who ebulliently dance to Connor Gallagher’s choreography — throughout hits like Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” and The Bangles’ “Manic Monday.”

The company of La Mirada Theatre’s production of Mystic Pizza. Photo by Jason Niedle

Kyra Kennedy is the Yale-bound Kat who is set to major in Astronomy, though in the meantime she is a property manager who falls in love with Chris Cardozo’s taken Tim who shares passionate moments with the academic ingénue at the “Farley House” built in 1880 by a merchant who tragically never reunites with his bride. Suffice it to say, Kennedy is wonderfully charming during a fantasy sequence when she first interacts with her onstage flame, which makes perfect use of Debbie Gibson’s “Lost in Your Eyes.” Cardozo, too, holds up his end of the bargain as the ultimately insensitive Tim and as perhaps the best male singer in the cast, impressing with a mesmerizing timbre.

(L-R) Jeff Skowron, Alyssa M. Simmons, Michael Thomas Grant, Krystina Alabado, Rachel Kae Wirtz, and Jake Swain in La Mirada Theatre’s production of Mystic Pizza. Photo by Jason Niedle

However, what doesn’t quite resonate as well as it does in the movie is removing the babysitter angle where Kat’s bridge to Tim is through the shared bond with his cherished little daughter. The devastation that Kat eventually feels in the motion picture is more heart-rending because her blind faith in believing she could slide in as a defacto mom (in the absence of Tim’s wife) is underscored in tandem with a second attachment at stake. Furthermore, the shattered illusions of Annabeth Gish’s Kat amount to the film’s most touching scene, whereas here it feels glossed over before segueing into Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors.”

(L-R) Jake Swain, Monika Peña, Kyra Kennedy, Jeff Skowron, Gianna Yanelli, Krystina Alabado, Rachel Kae Wirtz, and Domo D’dante in La Mirada Theatre’s production of Mystic Pizza. Photo by Jason Niedle

Nevertheless, the musical has significantly more merit than not, teeming with talent who are consummate professionals, including the undeniably charismatic Jeff Skowron who makes the most impact per line as Charles Windsor Sr., the Priest, and the “Fireside Gourmet” food critic. The latter two delineations are especially knee-slappers; Skowron’s Priest comically echoes ominous marital vows, and his mustachioed food critic doles out his opinion in a pedantically hilarious fashion. In fact, the scene when the “Fireside Gourmet” visits Mystic Pizza has an argument for being the most memorable as Skowron’s scowl-faced character is wheeled around a zestful company amid a marvelous mash-up of Mike + The Mechanics’ “All I Need Is a Miracle” and Kim Wilde’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”

The company of La Mirada Theatre’s production of Mystic Pizza. Photo by Jason Niedle

Although original songs are always preferred, arranger Carmel Dean, musical director Kristin Stowell, and conductor Jennifer Lin have put their own melodious spin on the smashes of yesteryear, oftentimes surprising spectators with new interpretations, none more splendid than Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now.” The Mystic Pizza band, who are situated on a “dock” in the rear of the stage, additionally deserve ample recognition for missing nary a beat.

Not to be overlooked is how fully realized the presentation of Mystic Pizza is, insofar that it may offer the best visuals at La Mirada Theatre to date. Kaitlin Yagen’s hair and wigs, Ryan J. O’Gara’s lighting, and Jen Caprio’s costumes are first-rate, but what is even more breathtaking is Nate Bertone’s scenic design. The shingled stage is augmented by a pier, accompanied by illuminated Mystic Pizza and Peg Leg Pub signs. But that’s not all; increasing the immersion are movable set pieces such as the pizza counter, country club, antique “Farley House,” and more, which stunningly bring Mystic to life.

(L-R) Krystina Alabado, Kyra Kennedy, and Gianna Yanelli in La Mirada Theatre’s production of Mystic Pizza. Photo by Jason Niedle

All in all, La Mirada Theatre’s production of Mystic Pizza flourishes on the talent of its cast and behind-the-scenes gurus who ensure an energized escape into the late 1980s. Simply put, audiences won’t be able to resist the urge to clap and hum along. Fans of this sisterhood story can also expect the majority of the plot’s refurbishments to be an improvement, although the musical could still use more fine-tuning to maximize its overall effect on observers. Inevitably, this show will draw comparisons to Sara Bareilles’ Waitress, and while Mystic Pizza isn’t quite as sweepingly captivating, falling slightly short of four stars, it does compel as an oven-baked offering in its own right.

For more details, including ticket information, about La Mirada Theatre’s production of Mystic Pizza (through only Sunday, February 11th), please visit lamiradatheatre.com.

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