The story may be the same as any other: boy falls for a long-time friend, they quarrel, they get together and kiss at the end. But in this version, lost notes from strangers and “The Ballad of Amber and Mario” bring them together in an unlikely mashing together of narratives that belong to people from across the nation. Iama Theatre’s musical production of “Found” is a typical love story that catches attention with its song, dance and performance. However, its attempt to incorporate so many stories from these found notes took away from the story onstage.
“Found” is based on the true story of Davy Rothbart (Jonah Platt) and his journey creating Found Magazine with his close friends, Denise (Jordan Kai Burnett) and Mikey D (Mike Millan). After being laid off from his job, Davy spirals in search of his next move, then comes across a stranger’s note filled with rage and mystery. After a strong, theatrical ballad of the stranger’s possible story, he and his friends brainstormed a way to collect these notes people leave behind and created a magazine out of them. In the process of the business, Davy fell for Denise, then didn’t upon the arrival of Becka (Karla Mosley), an LA transplant passing through Michigan. He fell victim to the entertainment world and the dazzling LA dream, leaving behind Denise and long-time-friend Mikey D. Davy then has to find his way back to the heart of the magazine and his true love.
It takes a long way for Davy to make his journey to Denise. The first act of the show lags from number to number, stretching out his way to creating the magazine, singing songs unnecessary to the plot. Although it does lag, each musical number is impressively crafted, ranging from soft ballads to rock to pop, connecting dance style to the musical genre. Part of this was because of the space.
The set, designed by Sibyl Wickersheimer, takes over the entire space and emulates the experience of sitting in a bar, which is the location of a majority of the musical. Actors went behind the audience, climbed ladders on the wall and danced right in front of you. The downfall of this orientation was that, depending on where you were in the room, you might miss a part of the story happening over the rails of the back of the theatre or at the opposite wall hidden by a column. Not to mention, during an energetic number, the overwhelming shake and rumble of feet on the wooden floorboards went anxiety through me as they inched closer and closer.
Choreographer Kathryn Buns utilized the entire performance space, and although it can be distracting, the choreography itself is incredibly fun and interactive. At times it gets confusing as to if the performers are a part of the audience or not because there is no definition of a backstage. In collaboration with arrangements by Frank Galgano and Matt Castle, there were distinct differences in the style of each number that kept the story new at each moment.
Projections were also used as a form of storytelling. Because the story is based on the lost notes of strangers, the notes themselves had to be present in the show as well. Projection designer Yee Eun Nam made them an additional character to the show by having them interpret what went on in the characters’ minds. If something wasn’t going well, instead of having the character blatantly say, “this isn’t going well,” a note that hints at the mood popped up and an ensemble member popped up to read the note off with their own attitude and flare.
By the top of the second act, it comes off as a variety show from a bar. Perhaps that was what they wanted. Each act is introduced with a direct address as if Davy was at the bar reading these notes to us. But the grounded everyday guy speaking on a mic quickly unfolded into a fever dream production mixed with “Magic Mike,” “Cats” and “La La Land.” The jumping in range showed in the blocking and acting of some of the characters.
Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel took too much advantage of the space, having actors go from spot to spot without intention at times, moving the audience’s focus constantly. The constant motion was also prevalent in the performances as Mike Millan got lost in the movement, putting his acting and performance at stake. His eyes darted during the introductory dance numbers and his attention to movement took his attention away from what his character was saying.
As the show progressed deeper into the second act, the narrative became clearer with the help of Jordan Kai Burnett. In “Barf Bag Breakup,” she dropped into her character and delivered a heart-wrenching plea to her love life. This time, Denise and Davey were on the same wavelength, the stars aligned and they were back where they started: the inside of a bar singing the words of Amber to her lover Mario. Despite the shows tendency to jump and startle, it was moments like those that put the humanity of the notes and the ones who read them at the forefront of the production.
“Found” runs now through March 23rd at LA Theatre Center. Tickets start at $35. More information can be found here.