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Watered down

San Luis Obispo Little Theatre panders to an aging demographic--again



The latest musical to hit the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre, titled Watergate and Other Solid Gold Hits! is not, artistically speaking, a successful show.

The play’s musical selections are far too ambitious for its abilities. The storyline is garbled, the dialogue unnatural and painfully cliché. The dancers are out of sync but don’t really seem to care, dutifully running through their paces. And while there are several standout performances, the show as a whole feels sloppy. I cannot possibly recommend it.

But that doesn’t matter. Those $35 seats will be filled, and audiences, if the opening night is any indication—will lap it right up. Because it’s a musical. Because it’s a rollicking good time. Because it’s the ’70s as they never were.

“How fun,” they will all say to each other at intermission, wrinkling their noses cutely.

And they will be correct. It is fun to relive your glory days. But that doesn’t make Watergate any good.

Let me explain. Watergate is the third in a series of springtime fundraisers written by David Vienna and directed by Kevin Harris, also the Little Theatre’s managing artistic director. The first, 2011’s This is Rock’n’Roll: The Alan Freed Story, was nothing short of fantastic. Everything worked. The story of the corrupt yet charismatic radio personality was nuanced and thought provoking. And since much of the story took place in an American Bandstand-type setting, it made sense for people to start bursting into ’50s hit songs.

Last year’s follow-up, My Generation, was basically what happens when you take a good idea and try to replicate it with significantly less attention to detail. The story of My Generation—a boy and a girl navigating some tricky ’60s situations—didn’t have the same power, but it nonetheless had some great moments: With simple yet impacting choreography from Civic Ballet’s Drew Silvaggio, performances of “Everyday People,” “Space Oddity,” and “Feeling Good” (around a coffin at a funeral—whoa) brought depth to the narrative and provided fresh context to the well-loved songs.

- BACK TO THE ’70S:  Watergate and Other Solid Gold Hits! plays through March 24 at the SLO Little Theatre, 888 Marsh St. downtown. Tickets cost $35; call 786-2440 or visit -
  • BACK TO THE ’70S: Watergate and Other Solid Gold Hits! plays through March 24 at the SLO Little Theatre, 888 Marsh St. downtown. Tickets cost $35; call 786-2440 or visit
So now we’re in the ’70s. The dependably good Marcus DiMaggio plays Charlie Memphis, advisor to President Nixon. His sister, the equally talented Kerry DiMaggio, is Jane Isley, who works under Vice President Spiro Agnew. Charlie’s a likeable enough guy, but he also doesn’t mind cheating a bit to get to the top, so there’s some foreshadowing about that. Agnew resigns over tax evasion allegations, which is a bummer for Jane. Then, after enough singing and dancing, the Watergate scandal happens. Charlie keeps trying to plug the leaks, but you know that’s not going to work. Also, there’s a sexy reporter in there somewhere, and a CIA agent who sang off-key.

If it sounds like I’m a little fuzzy on the details, it’s because the storyline is only vaguely sketched out between the 32 hit numbers that dominate the program. These are fabulous songs—some Fleetwood Mac, Electric Light Orchestra, Pink Floyd, and Paul McCartney, to name a few—accompanied by a capable live band under the musical direction of Steven Tosh. Unfortunately, much of the cast, and even occasionally the band, isn’t always up to the task. “Bohemian Rhapsody” made me want to cry.

As in My Generation, the DiMaggio siblings play each other’s potential love interests, which we could have understood without the help of lines like, “Wait! I love y—…your confidence! I love your confidence.” Unfortunately, this won’t be the last I-love-you-oops line: It happens again when Jane meets up with an old friend who harbors feelings for her. (For some reason, Jane responds to his confession by belting out Queen’s “Somebody to Love.” The song’s repeated plea—Can anybody find me somebody to love?—makes little sense as a rejoinder. I mean, he’s right in front of her.)

I’m not really sure what happened in the end. After the first act, it looked like the story was pretty much over, with CIA agent Wilson Picket (Wayne Gamble) and Washington Star reporter Susan Grace (Khara Oliver) looking like they were closing in on our hero Charlie. Somehow, though, it takes a second act of equal length to the first for this to happen. Then “My Sharona” and “Everybody I Love You” are tacked on at the end for good measure.

This is another problem. In the best musicals, the songs are a seamless part of the narrative. Some of the story’s pivotal moments—a first confession of love, a goodbye, the realization that a character is dying—might be communicated purely through song. In less powerful musicals, the songs serve to reiterate what was just communicated through dialogue. In Watergate, the songs can hardly be counted upon to make sense within the storyline, and serve largely as a distraction from it.

Despite its flaws, however, there’s plenty of talent on display in Watergate. Marcus and Kerry DiMaggio are both wonderful singers and play their respective roles well: He’s quick thinking, arrogant, and a little slimy; she’s earnest and idealistic. Ironically, Charlie is the newbie in the White House, while Jane is a bit more seasoned. When she tries to give him a few pointers, he gets an attitude, like, “Hey, I got this.”

Suzy Newman’s performance as Charlie’s washed-up, alcoholic mother, the once-successful singer Charlene Memphis, is just brilliant. Newman’s got it all: the awesome raspy voice, the comedic timing, the emotional maturity, and the willingness to just be an absolute mess, spilling her heart out onto the floor. Hers was one of a few performances I really believed. When she sang “A Little Less Conversation,” a tribute to the King following the news of his death, it was magic.

Watergate has its funny moments too. When Blackburn, as Nixon, seated with his trusted advisors in the Oval Office, unexpectedly launched into “Lean on Me,” I burst out laughing. The scene provided a moment of hope—perhaps the show would be funny, and everything would be OK after all! Indeed, humor could have made those nearly three hours of camp palatable, but such moments were rare.

Now, I am nothing close to a cynic. I try to like things. When my friends are unleashing hyperbolic abuse on a lackluster film, I’m the one shrugging, “Well, gee, I thought the premise was a neat idea; I just wish the director had taken another approach.”

The real cynics, I am sure, are the professionals who create shows like this. Individuals with the talent, experience, and education of Vienna and Harris must know what they are doing is not meaningful theater. And yet they keep at it anyway, confident that their aging audience will have had its emotions so deftly manipulated by the sounds of its bygone youth that it won’t notice or care how uninspired the performance is. Nostalgia blinds.

Arts Editor Anna Weltner is not a crook. Contact her at


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