Theater Review: A Standout Cast Makes for a Tasty “Mystic Pizza”

Kevin Taft reviews the decent but still charming enough stage musical, Mystic Pizza, adapted from the 80s romantic comedy.
User Rating: 6.5

After a workshop in Ogunquit, ME, in 2021, the La Mirada Playhouse is proudly presenting the World Premiere of the jukebox musical “Mystic Pizza.”

Based on the 1988 film of the same name, which launched Julia Roberts and eventually Lili Taylor and Annabeth Gish into stardom, the charming romantic comedy about love and friendship in a small town now gets the musical treatment.

With three standout performances, the plot of the musical mirrors the film (maybe to a fault) that follows two sisters, Daisy (Krystina Alabado) and Kat (Kyra Kennedy), and their best friend, Jojo (Gianna Yanelli), who all work at the whole in the wall Mystic Pizza restaurant in Mystic Connecticut. (A joint that really exists.)

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The three are each undergoing growing pains as they navigate young adulthood. Jojo, while in love with boyfriend Bill (Jordan Friend), can’t seem to make the jump to marriage. Daisy can’t decide what she wants to do with her life, always overshadowed by her smart, overachiever sister Kat. Daisy has a reputation that she upholds because she doesn’t know how else to identify herself. She eventually meets rich boy Charlie (Michael Thomas Grant) but worries that he likes her because she’s a “local girl” and not because of who she is.

Meanwhile, Kat has a number of jobs she’s hustling while trying to save money for Yale. While managing a rental house, she meets Tim (Chris Cardoza), a young architect with whom she discovers she has much in common. She starts falling for him even though he is navigating an estranged marriage.

There are a few subplots involving the potential selling of the restaurant, a nasty food critic, and Daisy’s relationship with her mother, but nothing strays too far from the original film. Smartly excised is Tim’s daughter, for whom Kat was babysitting in the movie. The selling of the Mystic Pizza is new. Jojo’s fiancé Bill is now in a local rock band, and Daisy ends up having bigger dreams for herself. These are smart choices, streamlining some of the narrative for the stage and giving more concrete arcs.

This new musical incarnation is filled with ‘80s pop tunes since the play has been nicely left to take place in the late ‘80s. Songs like “Small Town” work well (although multiple reprises were unnecessary), “Into the Mystic” makes a terrific duet between Kat and Tim, and “When I See You Smile” is another duet for the pair that strikes a moving chord.

The rest of the songs are hit or miss, and here’s why. In shows like “Moulin Rouge,” the audience is waiting to see what familiar banger is coming next, and many of them are played for amusement. Since this story has a lot of dramatic beats surrounding its comedy and romance, some of the more famous songs come across as silly. When Charlie starts singing Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” after a family dinner goes haywire, you can’t help but giggle. The circumstances surrounding that scene aren’t funny. (That said, it’s sung quite well by Thomas and Alabado.) “Hold On,” sung initially by Wilson Philips (which has become sort of a punchline for the last decade), is supposed to be the powerful Act I close number, but the song itself betrays them. Ditto with “All I Need is a Miracle,” which seems like an easy choice.

Other times, songs are used simply for the local band’s performances and add nothing to the plot. Other times, they are used to punctuate emotions that have already been expressed. “Mad About You” is used after one character expresses her undying love for another, so it might have been wiser to express that love through the song. Not after it’s already happened.

The book by Sandy Rustin, based on the screenplay by Amy Holden Jones, makes a few smart alterations but mostly sticks to the script line for line. Direction by Casey Hushion utilizes the inventive set well, recalling how “Kinky Boots” utilized theirs.

The show itself feels like the perfect touring show for audiences who want a familiar story and tunes they can hum along to. There’s nothing wrong with that, and the opening night audience seemed to be having a blast. (Clearly, many hadn’t seen the movie since there were gasps at certain reveals.)

But in all honesty, I think it would work better as an original musical without the distraction of the ‘80s Hit Parade that we get. Many have forgotten about Mystic Pizza, the movie, which is actually a good thing when bringing a new incarnation to a different medium. But like Waitress, a similarly beloved but oft-forgotten film, it might be more effective with original music and lyrics.

What brings the show to life, however, are the actors, all of whom shine, especially our three leads. Yanelli steals the show as Jojo with her endless nervous energy, one-liners, and humorous indecision. Kennedy’s Kat is truly the show’s heart, and her earnestness draws us into her story and her eventual heartbreak. Alabado as Daisy (Julia Robert’s role) brings a concrete earthiness to her character, but still allows her vulnerability to leak through.

Rayanne Gonzales as Mystic Pizza owner Leona is super charming, Friend as Bill is adorable, and Cardozo as Tim still manages to make us like him, even when he does some things we might side-eye today. And Grant, as the rich boy Charlie, brings depth to a character that could have been one note.

So, while I would have preferred an original score or maybe a deeper dive into ‘80s hits that aren’t cliché at this point, there still is charm and talent on display at Mystic Pizza. Audiences will undoubtedly gobble up this slice of nostalgia. Where it goes from here is anybody’s guess.

“Mystic Pizza” runs through February 11th at La Mirada Theatre in La Mirada, CA.
For information and tickets, visit www.lamiradatheatre.com.

6.5
Fair
Written by
Kevin is a long-time movie buff with a wide variety of tastes and fixations in the film world. He cried the moment Benji appeared onscreen in “Benji,” and it took him about four times to finally watch “The Exorcist” (at age 24) without passing out. “Star Wars: A New Hope” was the movie that changed everything and when his obsession with films and filmmaking began. A screenwriter himself (one long-ago horror script sale to New Line remains on a shelf), his first film "Two Tickets to Paradise" that he co-wrote premiered in June 2022 on Hallmark. He is currently working on another for the iconic brand.

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