By Joe Straw
Thump—thumpthump, thump—thumpthump, thump—thumpthump. (Can you hear it?)
There is a lot going on in this uplifting musical, Eastside Heartbeats, and it is not just the music. Surely this musical has the potential to move to another and bigger venue. Yes, there’s enough here for a future life. And Eastside Heartbeats has got all of Los Angeles as potential patrons – beyond the east-side sold-out houses at Casa 0101. There is the west-side, the south-side, the north-side of Los Angeles, more room for dancing in the street, and beyond.
One can hardly write when the music is mentally playing in the background, so I will turn it off, for now, if I can.
The music in Eastside Heartbeats is good, really good. Listening, one can hear the febrile pulsations and the reverberant clangor of the 1960’s – songs that send a delicious shiver down a slippin’ backbone with the sounds that drove Americans and the world absolutely nuts. And, with the exception of La Bamba, Eastside Hearbeats is all new music. Absorbed this night was the flavor of Smokey Robinson, a taste of Cannibal and The Headhunters, the bottom tips of The Four Tops, and also a treat, the Merseybeat.
I can't help myself.
I can't help myself.
A lot of money went into the production of this musical. It is apparent on stage with the costumes, props, and music, but, there was something that required attention, something that missed the mark, that didn’t quite hit the nail on the head, and needs to be fixed.
What the heck was it?
The book. The book. The book. I believe that it was the book by Tom Waldman.
Stand by me.
At times, the book was desultory. And to that end, I will direct my comments. But, and this is a big BUT, it was also a remarkable job for Waldman’s first play outing.
There are musicals that get along fine without a book, but this musical necessitates a strong book to set the time and move the motion. The interesting moments are the ones that take a serious look at Latino musicians, changing their looks, and presenting their sound as white. These moments, and the rich Latino heritage, need a second look, a deeper look.
Brown Fist Production in Association with Casa 0101 presents Eastside Heartbeats – Book by Tom Waldman, Music & Lyrics by James Holvay, Additional Music & Lyrics by David Reyes, Rudy Salas, and Tom Waldman. Eastside Heartbeats was directed by Steve E. Feinberg and produced by Maria Elena Yepes, Tom Waldman, Steve E. Feinberg, and David Reyes. Eastside Heartbeats complete its run at Casa 0101 on May 29th, 2016 in Boyle Heights.
Essentially the play is a story about a young Latino man, living on the eastside, who wants to become a rock and roll star.
Those dreams seem a galaxy away for Jimmy Ramirez (Kenneth Miles Ellington Lopez) and the Eastside Heartbeats knowing very little about how this is all going to happen. The group Mario (Marco Infante), Andy (Jesse Maldonado Salgado), and Ronnie (Matthew Ramos) all try to find a way. So, in the summer of 1965 these four forlorn young men look to climb to the top – “the toppermost of the poppermost” – all before 1966.
Their dreams do come in small increments as the band moves to find its way to having a number one hit, despite the conflicts they have with family and business partners.
So, I’ve got a few notes.
Papa’s got a brand new bag.
Dad, Carlos Ramirez (Gabriel Gonzalez) needs a job. He is a big part of the conflict, the infectious melancholy injected into the lives of his surrounding family members. He is the message, the struggle that is resolved in the end. Carlos respects tradition and traditional Mexican music. He is a mechanic by trade, but we never see him working, oily, with grease on his face, his hands, clothes, or singing under the hood of his work. Symbolism goes a long way here. He fights with his son, Jimmy, his daughter, Lydia (Angel Marie Galvan), and a little with his wife, Sonia (Isabel Serrano). But, why? Later we find out why, but we really don’t see the progression in this character, what he gave up, and what makes him so angry until the end of the musical.
Lydia Ramirez, younger sister to Jimmy Ramirez, must have a stronger relationship with her brother. It is not enough to be supportive of him; we must really find a connection, an adamantine bond that locks them arm in arm. She might even be a future sociologist.
Love makes the world go round.
The same holds true with Sonia Ramirez, the matriarch of the family. She is a character that needs the strong objective of holding the family together while finding a way to make sure his son achieves his dream. It’s not that far flung to have Sonia make Jimmy, with no job, a cheese and mayonnaise sandwich to keep his strength while he’s rehearsing. (I say this in jest, but again, a little symbolism goes a long way.) All in the name of love.
Hal Fisher (Jordan Charles) is a manager, a no nonsense, you got one hour to get it done or you’re out the door, kind of guy with a girlfriend, Teresa Gomez (Vanessa Benavente), who has got a really nice head on her shoulders. But their relationship doesn’t grow, and really doesn’t have a resolution. Their relationship ties into the boy’s success and it kind of does, but there isn’t a big amorous connection in the end. Fisher throughout has a take it or leave it attitude when it comes to love, and that ain’t love, baby, that ain’t love.
There’s a really interesting scene in the record store before the guys “make it”. Jimmy is hip to Teresa but really wants to get to Hal Fisher, for maybe more than representation. But this action isn’t realized on stage as a pursuit. It’s more or less singing a song, “It’s all Good”. A good song, by the way, but does little in the way for the actors reaching their objectives. The introduction, the pursuit, the capture, success or failure, are all things we should see in this number.
Eddie Mitchell (Jahmaul Bakare) has got enough talent for all, and he shares it to those who are really looking for it, the ride, the big ride. The show needs Bakare’s voice in it, because you can’t have the sixties without the soul, period. But, what are we to make of Mitchell’s relationship with Jimmy, beside one of teacher. Jimmy shows up one day at Mitchell’s house, they do a number, “”Bad Dads”, and Jimmy leaves. Hmmm, got to, got to, got to have more than that. We’ve really got to have more of a relationship that later ties into the destruction from the Watts riots.
Also, one is not really sure why Jimmy was there alone, taking lessons. Is he there because he is the front man and needs that extra added advantage? Or, is he there to take back those lessons to teach to the other guys? Also, the book really needs to define Jimmy as the front-man and whether this by their choice or by the manager’s design.
Steve E. Feinberg, the director, does an admirable job. There are enough moments in the musical that keep you bouncing in your chair. The execution is almost flawless. But the momentum is stalled during set changes. Feinberg must find a way to keep living room set and all the other set changes to a minimum, and make those changes inventive in keeping with the musical. There are also the relationship problems inherent in the story that could be strengthened. All small notes, but, for the most part, Eastside Heartbeats is exceptional.
Dance Captain Katie Kitani did a remarkable job with the ensemble. The energy on stage was just tremendous. Members of the ensemble were Taleen Shrikian, April Sheets who also played the lovely Bride, Andrew Joseph Perez who was also the Groom, Sebastian Gonzales, also rounded out the ensemble.
Benjamin Perez was the understudy for Hal Fisher who did not perform the night I was there. Bernardita Nassar played Teresa Gomez and also did not perform on this night.
Kenneth Miles Ellington Lopez (that’s a mouthful) plays front man Jimmy Ramirez. Lopez has a great voice and a natural appeal and could easily do this for a living.
Marco Infante also has a wonderful voice as Mario. He turns red when belting out the numbers and has a lot of energy on stage.
Jesse Maldonado Salgado plays Andy and really looks nothing like his picture in the program. Salgado has an interesting looks, kind of quirky on stage, and manages to hold his own with the rest of the group.
Matthew Ramos does a fine job as Ronnie and fills out the quartet with a remarkable sound.
Gabriel Gonzales plays the Dad Carlos Ramirez but doesn’t look anything like his picture in the program. Must be the mustache that throws me off. Carlos needs a song about his dreams and that song should include his son. “I Had My Say” does the opposite.
Angel Marie Galvan did a nice job as Lydia Ramirez, the sister, but more could be made of her character.
Jordan Charles has got a very nice look as Hal Fisher. Fisher has got problems looking for the next big thing. He doesn’t give second chances but other than that we know little of his outside life, if he has one. He has no romantic proclivities and that doesn’t bode well for a musical that is essentially, a romantic outing. Fisher needs more of a backstory, in job, and in love. That said, Charles has an astonishing presence on stage.
Jahmaul Bakare has got a remarkable voice as Eddie Mitchell. Mitchell is a supporting character but something really has to happen to him. (Could it be during the Watts riots?) Mitchell, as it is now, just disappears and we really don’t get a sense of what happened to the character and how this all fits in the musical.
Vanessa Benavente, usually an understudy, played Teresa on this night. Benavente gave a solid performance and one admires the strength she brought to the character. While not everything worked, her performance was exceptional.
Isabel Serrano played Sonia on this night and was also exceptional. Serrano, an understudy, went on this night and there were no major glitches.
One feels like I’ve stepped back into the 60’s with Julius Bronola costume design. The same hold true for Urbanie Lucero’s choreography which kept us dancing well into the night.
The handling of the instrumental chores is the off-stage band. The band is great. Great! Gary St. Germain (Musical Director, Keyboards & Guitar), the legendary James Holvay (Rhythm Guitar), Christopher Diaz-Infante (Guitar), Christian Burrolla (Bass), and Peter A. Zavala (Drums) play to their hearts content and the music alone is worth the price of admission.
Other members of the crew are as follows:
Jerry Blackburn – Production Stage Manager
JP Torres – Stage Manager
Cesar Holguin – Set Designer
Jose Lopez – Lighting Designer
Joey Guthman – Production Designer & Associate Lighting Designer
Vincent Sanchez – Sound Designer
Melodee Fernandez – Vocal Director, Assistant Music Director
Katie Kitani – Dance Captain
Angel Gutierrez – Assistant Director
Jorge Villanueva – Light and Sound Board Operator
Rooster Cabrera – Assistant Stage Manager
Miguel Carachure – Sound Mixer
Steve Moyer – Publicist
Ed Krieger – Photographer
Soap Studio Inc. – Graphic Design
When you get the chance – Run! Run! Run! And take a friend that really loves the music of the sixties.