Two shows are guised as one in the Pasadena Playhouse’s staging of “Bigger Than Bubble Gum.” “Bigger” chronicles the early career of the Emotions (Jeanette Hawes, Sheila Hutchinson, Wanda Vaughn), three sisters from Chicago who became one of the top vocal trios of the 1970s. Featuring 16 production numbers under Otis Sallid’s swift but inventive staging and personified by three gifted performers — Charlia R. Boyer, LeDeana M. Devereaux and Jennifer Leigh Warren — the tribulations of these young ladies as they make their way through the shark-infested waters of big-time show business is told with surface-skimming dispatch. Then the real Emotions come on to perform a 13-song concert. Plot or not, it is a double-decker musical treat, buoyed by the extravagantly rich score by the Emotions, Larry W. Heimgartner and Tony Coleman.
As youngsters growing up in Chicago, the three Hutchinson sisters were told by their father Joseph (who was also their manager) that if they kept practicing and believing in God that nothing could stop them and they would become “bigger than bubble gum.” Following a 1968 victory in an amateur talent contest, the woefully inexperienced girls sign a recording contract with Stax Records, launching a successful 15-year career marked by cold-blooded manipulation by a series of promoters. Serious emotional and professional schisms among the three sisters ensue as well.
Heimgartner’s book, which doesn’t offer a chronological tour through the life and times of the Emotions, is aided immensely by Sallid’s impressionistic direction. The actual facts are more often implied during the cathartic interplay of the young women, and by the hovering presence of the men in their lives, magnificently performed by Victor Trent Cook, Clinton Derricks-Carroll, Cleto V. Escobedo III, Adam Jackson, Gregory Scott Sherman and Jerry Woo.
The three young women are terrific in their own right. Warren’s Wanda is a dynamo of ambition and passion who literally runs right over her sisters with her condemning “Papa Didn’t Teach Us That Way,” and later offers a heart-rending plea for reconciliation (“I’m Giving It All to You”). Devereaux’s Jeanette is totally victimized by her need to be loved by Derricks-Carroll’s married cad, Tyrone. The pair offer seductive duo outings on “Come With Me Tonight” and “Do You Wanna Go?” Boyer’s Sheila is a seething study of dissatisfaction and jealousy with a soaring voice that pulsates through such trio numbers as “Somebody New,” “So I Can Love You,” “Smile” and “Boogie Wonderland.”
The men, who periodically become the white-masked villains who manipulate the careers of the women, have some individual highlights of their own. Cook’s lovesick Sarge soars through the haunting ballad “More Than Love,” and the diminutive Woo offers a surprising turn as the performer-wannabe with his showstopping “The Music Is In Me.” The quintet of Derricks-Carroll, Sherman, Jackson, Cook and Escobedo are at their best, however, when they become the Silvertones, ripping through such song-and-dance spectaculars as “Love Vibe,” “Time to Show” and “Women.”
When the real Emotions come onstage it is simply musical icing on the cake. There is no wear and tear on these ladies’ voices as they re-create their best-known hit “Best of My Love,” the Wanda-led “Don’t Ask My Neighbor” and reprises of “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love” and “Boogie Wonderland.”
Despite some opening-night technical glitches in the sound system, the technical aspects of the show are first-rate. The scenic, lighting and costume designs of Gary Wissman, Kevin Mahan and Zoe DuFour, respectively, compliment Sallid’s whirlwind, multilayered production concept. Particular praise must also go Fred Dinkins’ six-piece band for surrounding the performers with a pulsating but never overbearing instrumental accompaniment.