SD Union Tribune Theatre Preview: SDMT’s ‘Pump Up the Volume’ dials it back to the 1990s
By James Hebert
The 1990s had the blistering grunge of Nirvana and the bubblegum of the Spice Girls; the cultural explosion of hip-hop and the curious implosion of Milli Vanilli; the tragedy of Princess Di and the madness of whatever the Macarena was.
It was a decade of some pretty stark contrasts, and trying to sum it all up in a live musical would seem to require a show about as expansive as M.C. Hammer’s parachute pants.
But Colleen Kollar Smith and Jon Lorenz, co-creators of San Diego Musical Theatre’s world-premiere show “Pump Up the Volume,” don’t quite have the luxury of putting up an eight-hour stage epic.
What they are planning to do, over the course of the musical’s 60-odd songs (or song snippets) and its plenitude of pop-culture sampling, is to offer at least a taste of a decade that was so heavyweight it shut down a millennium.
The two do have a little experience in that realm: Seven years ago, they teamed to create “miXtape,” the Lamb’s Players Theatre musical revue that celebrated and satirized the 1980s.
That show ran for about four years in two separate engagements at downtown’s Horton Grand Theatre, setting a record as the longest-running homegrown musical in San Diego history.
But the kind of gleeful goofiness (Kajagoogoo! “Gremlins”! “Solid Gold”!) that brands the ’80s in the public imagination is a little different from the grunge-inflected afterglow of the ’90s.
Or maybe it all depends on your perspective. And your vintage.
While Kollar Smith graduated from high school in the ’90s, those were more Lorenz’s college years. So “my memories of it lean toward alternative music and grunge and techno and female singer-songwriters,” says Lorenz, who is the show’s musical director and arranger.
Kollar Smith, the production’s director and choreographer, says her memories “tend to lean toward hip-hop, R&B, dance. And boy bands and the Spice Girls. And then you’ve got the artists who go through (from earlier years), like Madonna, like Michael Jackson.
“I actually think the fact we do have those different experiences is what’s making this so eclectic.”
Lorenz admits he was a little skeptical at first about the idea behind “Pump Up the Volume,” which takes its title from the 1990 movie starring Christian Slater as a renegade DJ.
“When people would ask, ‘Why don’t you do (a “miXtape”) for the ’90s, I was looking back and saying, ‘Well, it sounds like a sad show!,’” he says with a laugh.
“But then there’s a bubblegum flavor to the beginning and end of the decade. You’re coming out of the ’80s, especially on television with the TGIF night (of programming) — Urkel (of ‘Family Matters’), ‘Full House.’ In music you still had people like Bobby Brown on the radio.
“And at the end of the decade — after a big section in the middle where music spent a lot of time saying, ‘I don’t want to be part of this corporate machine; I’m going to make my voice heard’ — we went back to bubblegum. We went back to Britney Spears and boy bands.”
“I think our way in was remembering a generation that was labeled ‘losers,’ that was labeled Generation X, and how they found their way through that.”
The show is loosely structured around the adventures of seven strangers who escape the grind of their lives in the 2010s and zip back to the ’90s. (They’re played by Brielle Batino, Cassie Bowerman, Joshua David Cavanaugh, James Royce Edwards, Janaya Jones, Leonard Patton and Edred Utomi.)
The cast is joined by a five-piece live band led by the versatile Taylor Peckham, just off a stint as musical director/conductor on the national tour of “Jersey Boys.”
While “Pump Up” was still in flux as Kollar Smith and Lorenz spoke, it promises to take in such ’90s musical touchstones as Nirvana, Alanis Morissette, Hootie & the Blowfish, Shania Twain, Whitney Houston, Pearl Jam, Tori Amos and (yes) “Achy Breaky Heart” — not a song Kollar Smith might’ve thought of right away, she admits, “but I remember my dad trying to line-dance to it in the living room.”
Somehow, the show’s creators will try to connect all those threads — while still leaving enough room for playgoers to add their own memories and experiences to the mix.
“I think we really learned how much context the audience brings in with them,” Lorenz says of the “miXtape” experience.
“Before, our instinct was to try to explain things. But there’s such a joy of shared legacy to be found.”
‘Pump Up the Volume: A Musical ’90s-Palooza’
When: Previews begin Friday. Opens Aug. 5. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 10.
Where: San Diego Musical Theatre at the Horton Grand Theatre, 444 Fourth Ave., Gaslamp Quarter.
Tickets: $25-$60 (discounts available)
Phone: (858) 560-5740
Nine for the ‘90s
“Star Wars Episode I — The Phantom Menace” (1999)
“Jurassic Park” (1993)
“Candle in the Wind 1997” Elton John (tribute to Princess Diana), 1997
“I Will Always Love You,” Whitney Houston, 1992
“Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix),” Los Del Rio, 1996
Everyone who was around for the ‘90s has a list of favorite music tracks from the decade (although if Sisqo’s “Thong Song” is on yours, I’m not sure I want to know about it). Here are five of mine, plucked from a whole lot of worthy candidates.
“Cannonball,” the Breeders (1993): Forget the ‘90s — this funky and funny and defiantly odd track from the Breeders’ classic album “Last Splash” is a song for all time. (And its video might be the best of its sub-sub-genre since Camper Van Beethoven’s “Take the Skinheads Bowling.”)
“Nightswimming,” REM (1992): Michael Stipe and Co. dropped the jangly guitars for brooding piano and strings in this wistful ode to memory, loss and (possibly) the perils of skinny-dipping.
“Sick of Myself,” Matthew Sweet (1995): In a decade that gave us such anthems of self-abnegation as “Creep” and “Loser,” Matthew Sweet brought a lot less moping and a lot more fun to the topic with this ridiculously catchy tune and its riffs that just won’t quit.
“Paranoid Android,” Radiohead (1997): There’s an almost operatic vibe to this darkly magnificent three-part opus from Radiohead’s stunning “OK Computer” album. (Be warned: The video gets a little disturbing.)
“Sweet Old World,” Lucinda Williams: The gentlest and most low-key song ever to turn a listener into a complete sentimental wreck in the space of four minutes. There’s just something about Lucinda Williams’ soulful voice and those simple lyrical couplets (“Looking for some truth / Dancing with no shoes”). I’m not crying, you’re crying.