The new musical at the Pasadena Playhouse about pop music ambition, “Breaking Through,” never breaks out. One-dimensional characters, self-conscious darkness and a story derived from every mama-make-me-a-star yarn you’ve ever seen, especially “A Star Is Born,” sink interest quickly.
In librettist Kirsten Guenther’s telling, the music industry is a Dante’s Inferno populated solely by voguing poseurs, fat-cat predators and gawky innocents destined to morph into self-medicating, “narcistic” (as one of the odder lyrics by songwriters Cliff Downs and Katie Kahanovitz puts it) basket cases.
Exhibit A is our plucky heroine, not that musicals boast anything but plucky heroines these days. Fresh-faced Charlie Jane (Allison Luff) arrives in the Big Apple armed with a guitar purchased with saved barista money, and a dream to — I believe I’ve got this right — express herself by singing her songs.
In a “meet cute” she comes under the wing of handler Amanda (Nita Whitaker), and no sooner unveils an anthem than whoomp, there it is: gaudy music videos, near-porno magazine covers and a made-up romance with ex-boy-bander turned solo sleazebag Scorpio (Matt Magnusson) — all essentially a cartoony vision of the industry circa 1985.
If the moment an enabler hands Charlie Jane her first pill, you don’t anticipate her blowing off her square boyfriend (Will Collyer) and plus-size bestie (Teya Patt) in fits of diva pique, then you’re not up on your movie melodrama cliches. But fear not, she hasn’t been rendered plucky for nothing, and her authenticity will win out in the end.
An attractive, talented cast can do one of two things with such threadbare material — kid the hell out of it or play it to heart. Yet director Sheldon Epps has steered them into pervasive earnest seriousness. With the exception of charismatic Kacee Clanton as a boozy star on the downslide (though she can still outsing anyone else in the company), no one exudes any particular joy in performing, or even in accruing wealth and power.
So glumly deterministic is this vision of showbiz — reinforced by John Iacovelli’s giant, sliding blue-green panels and Kaitlyn Pietras’s grim, inky projections — it might’ve been crafted by Cotton Mather as a warning against sinful busking.
Downs and Kahanovitz boast Tin Pan Alley bona fides, but haven’t written a musical’s score. Theater songs are supposed to advance the plot, serving as occasions for characters to impose their will and make decisions, whereas every number here reflects something someone has already expressed in dialogue.
The redundant, oversung cavalcade of musical pain (“I know I lost my pride/I feel so dead inside”), determination (“My dreams keep me alive/Help me to survive”) and whimsy (“You gotta act like Miley and show a little ass”) is purely plaintive pop, and if that floats your boat, “Breaking Through” may be for you.
Choreographer Tyce Diorio brings a dance aesthetic honed on “So You Think You Can Dance” and Taylor Swift tours. For many patrons, this too will be a recommendation.