La Jolla Playhouse continues taking bold risks

The world premiere of The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical Brings Audiences into a Journalist's Chaotic World with Outstanding Visual Elements

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti

The cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of THE UNTITLED UNAUTHORIZED HUNTER S. THOMPSON MUSICAL;
photo by Rich Soublet II.
New musicals based on true events and real people, are tough to create and land. The ones of this nature that are around, are mostly what are called "jukebox musicals" encompassing the artist's catalog, sprinkled with their life events, and there, you have the plot.

La Jolla Playhouse continues taking bold risks to bring audiences fresh new stories that linger long after leaving the space. In the world premiere of The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical, it's evident that the creative team, led by Joe Iconis, Gregory S. Moss, and Jon Rua, crafted a production that pushes boundaries, having the audience go to journalist Hunter S. Thompson's vividly chaotic world. Growing up, finding his first partner Sandy, and having their only son Juan. His nontraditional ways in all aspects of his life, including his love and practice of journalism that brought a new style called “Gonzo” where the journalist is at the center of the story and writes in the first person. 

Being a reporter for over a decade, I can totally relate to this style as I feel more comfortable and you can read now, writing in the first person versus in the third. But perspectives, formats, and styles aside, this musical aims to capture the chaos and speed in Thompson's life, molding it into a stage format with plenty of moving parts that make for a wild and bumpy ride, just like that rollercoaster that you love to hate -but ride anyway- as you get off laughing in tears and with an adrenaline spike.

L: Jason SweetTooth Williams, Gabriel Ebert, George Salazar and Ryan Vona. Photo Rich Soublet II
Under the direction of Tony Award winner Christopher Ashley, the staging of this production is a visually stunning spectacle. Wilson Chin's churrigueresque scenic design from top to bottom fills the eye and gives us some peaks from time to time which makes it even more dynamic. Toni-Leslie James's costumes perfectly illustrate the different decades in the story with color and style, while Amanda Zieve's lighting design in yellows, oranges, and chestnut tones, adds an atmospheric layer to the narrative.

The cast is solid. I appreciated that each member gets their own time and song to shine and show their chops. Gabriel Ebert as Hunter goes through the histrionic layers with a stellar approach. From innocent, to angry, to maniac, and others in between. Seeing new talent thrive warms my heart, and having Giovanny Diaz de Leon as The Kid in his La Jolla Playhouse debut proves the hard work he has put into the stage for the past year and continues to impress. Jeannette Bayardelle is fun, and funny, with an amazing and potent voice that will leave audiences gasping. Lorinda Lisitza is hilarious and uses her props well, being also the relief between tense scenes. I was left wanting more from George Abud last year in Lempicka, it just did not do it for me. He reclaimed his Broadway status as Nixon in this musical where not only is he viciously sarcastic, but funny and bold while performing interesting stunts. George Salazar's portrayal of Oscar is strong and sometimes heavy in a good interpretative way. I believe Christopher Ashley's direction truly brought each actor's different talents to mesh with the scenes. There is one where Jon Rua's choreography plays an homage to the boy bands folded in the story. Salazar, Ryan Vona (Juan), and Jason Sweettooth Williams (Steadman) give that scene the amazing energy needed with the precision and attitude that every boy band fan can easily recognize. Vona's dancing grace and ability shine through as well as Jason's charm and tenderness. 

Front: Gabriel Ebert and George Salazar with (back, L-R) Lauren Marcus, Jason SweetTooth Williams
and Jeannette Bayardelle; photo by Rich Soublet II.

The musical's score created by Joe Iconis starts slow and will apparently stay there but sneaks up around the third song, grabs on, and does not let go, while the book, a collaborative effort between Iconis and Moss, is bold and raw. It also gave me The Simpsons and Seth MacFarlane's style of writing vibes, along with that intelligently crafted irreverence. The creative team's attention to detail extends beyond the traditional aspects of a musical. Puppet designers Animal Cracker Conspiracy bring the plot's hallucinatory visions to life, adding a whimsical and surreal touch to the production. Bravo to puppeteers Josiah Cajudo and Josh Alvarez who did a stellar job with all those wonderful (and not-so-wonderful) characters added. The wig and hair designs by Alberto "Albee" Alvarado and the orchestration by Charlie Rosen contribute to the overall authenticity of the era. I was not familiar with Hunter S. Thompson, but this musical opened the door to a cool exploration of his persona. 

Marcy Harriell, who plays Sandy, Hunter's first wife. The way the marriage and overall couple dynamic was portrayed along with Sandy's feelings and resolution, is something that many women can find relatable. I also found it to be an Eliza Schuyler moment taking herself "in and out of the narrative". Marcy did a wonderful job combining humor and pain with a powerful voice. 

The visual elements of this production are outstanding. I applaud the Playhouse's initiative to challenge its traditional subscriber base with these daring stories that instead of sugarcoating and applauding a country's flaws, puts them on the table and questions them to offer dialogue and start a real conversation. 

Currently playing and extended until October 8th (my mom's birthday!). For performance dates and times please click HERE

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