Living entirely inside one’s own head isn’t a good way to sustain a romance — or, as it turns out, a romantic-comedy musical. At least not based on the evidence of “Up Here,” the middling stage collaboration of husband-and-wife team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the songwriters behind Disney megahit “Frozen.” This not-for-kids production, making its debut at the La Jolla Playhouse, takes its cues from two Tony-winning shows on which Lopez worked, “The Book of Mormon” and “Avenue Q,” albeit without the sharp wit or giddy crowd-pleasing highs.
“Up Here” puts a high-concept spin on a rather pedestrian beauty-and-the-geek relationship story by inviting the audience literally inside the head of its leading man. The show opens with schlubby IT support man Dan (Matt Bittner) fumbling his way through a requisite meet-cute with T-shirt designer Lindsay (Betsy Wolfe, “Bullets Over Broadway”). More than just boy meets girl, an ensemble of 16-plus performers crowd the stage representing all sides of a lopsided love triangle between Dan, Lindsay and the many voices inside Dan’s brain.
In case trying to dramatize the inner workings of the protagonist’s mind sounds reminiscent of the recent hit movie “Inside Out,” the Lopezes have already worked a meta reference into the second scene: Lindsay’s shirt biz is called “Inside Out Shirts” because they “say things people usually keep on the inside.” Though, she notes, “I’ll probably have to change that because of the Pixar movie.”
Superficial similarities aside, no one will confuse the two projects for long. “Inside Out” follows the emotional coming-of-age of a young girl at a dramatic turning point, and all the feelings in her head become fully fleshed out characters in their own right. “Up Here” explores a socially awkward singleton without ever providing a rooting interest in his flailing love life, and never makes the various neuroses who plague his brain — including a snooty critic, lazy humbug, hyper-masculine cool guy and unreachable cool girl — into anything more than singing, dancing punchlines.
It’s a bold choice for a musical to open its second act with a song all about how unappealing the lead character is (“Don’t you just hate Dan?” the negative voices in his head croon in unison), especially when the audience has little reason to disagree. The problem has nothing to do with Bittner’s perfectly engaging and suitably energetic work in the role, and everything to do with Dan’s conception as an insecure doormat who keeps sabotaging his relationship with a woman far out of his league even though she lavishes him with inexplicable devotion.
Visually, “Up Here” is a nonstop spectacle, exemplified best by the colorful, cartoony and at times garish set and costume design by “The Pee Wee Herman Show” veterans David Korins and Ann Closs-Farley. It’s as if the action is unfolding literally inside Dan’s cranium, all pink and purple and bubbly. But there’s also a monotony to both the look and the story that sets in early and never really dissipates.
Subplots involving the “big impact” of a rock formation in Central Park and Lindsay’s autistic brother’s insistence that “there’s no such thing as the number one” resolve predictably, while eating up time that might have been better devoted to developing a credible bond between Dan and Lindsay. Wolfe is charming in her role and even sings the hell out of such banalities as “I feel like I’ve always known you,” but Lindsay remains more of a construct than a person, perhaps because we’re stuck — so, so stuck — inside of Dan.
Joshua Bergasse’s choreography is at its best when Dan is dancing badly (which Bittner does happily, and with abandon), while the songs are generally pleasant but ultimately disposable. There’s nothing as anthemic as “Let It Go,” and nothing to rival any of the multiple “Book of Mormon” showstoppers. Only two numbers break from the pack and to give a glimpse the show’s untapped potential.
“Downward Spiral” in the first act benefits from the expert puppet work of Michelle Zamora animating Dan’s imagined parents, a demanding pile of laundry and a monstrous “Beetlejuice”-esque nightmare version of Lindsay, raising expectations for more playful surprises that never materialize. The second act “Stranger” invites an audience member up to the stage to interact with Dan and Lindsay in a scene that walks a line between public embarrassment and vaudeville wackiness. At the very least it holds a live-wire fascination the rest of the show doesn’t match.
Director Alex Timbers (“Here Lies Love,” “Peter and the Starcatcher”), who has been attached to the project for years, has said in interviews that “Up Here” remains very much a work in progress, so the ambitious musical may well reinvent itself over time. Either way, the creatives are advised to keep thinking. Or maybe let it go.