It all begins with a note on a car and a case of mistaken identity. Found, a musical based on the books and magazines of the same name by Davy Rothbart, opened this past weekend in its west coast premiere at IAMA Theatre Company in Los Angeles. With a book by Tony nominee Hunter Bell (true theater nerds may remember [title of show]) and Lee Overtree and music and original lyrics by Eli Bolin, the story follows fictional versions of Rothbart and his two best friends as they embark on an unexpected adventure that begins with gathering discarded notes and letters they find in the world. The journey ultimately makes them reexamine their own relationships and what genuine human connection looks like in the modern world.
Davy (Jonah Platt) has just lost his job doing social media for a bank when he finds an angry note on his car that was meant for someone else. He can’t stop thinking about what the story might be behind the note, and before he knows it he is spending his spare time gathering any bit of paper he finds throughout the day. The timing is, in a way, perfect. Davy is desperately looking to do something creative and inspiring, and his two best friends are at similar crossroads in their lives. Denise (Jordan Kai Burnett) is a burned-out bartender who has sworn off love after her first marriage went down in flames—even though there is long-standing romantic tension between her and Davy. Big-hearted Mikey (Mike Millan) is just the opposite, constantly searching for a relationship in all the wrong places. The three assemble the found notes into a magazine, which quickly gains traction after Davy does some well-received live readings at Denise’s bar.
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the story develops the way you might expect. Davy has an unexpected meet-cute with Becka (Karla Mosley), an agent from Los Angeles, after he happens to read a note from her childhood, found tucked away in a book at a thrift store, at one of his performances. Becka has big ideas about the future, both in terms of the budding relationship and the television potential for Found, and Davy is quickly swept up, to the detriment of his friendships with Denise and Mikey.
This musical, which made its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company off-Broadway in 2014, might be described as a comedy, but it is surprisingly heartfelt. While most of the notes included in the show are taken directly from Rothbart’s actual collections, additional material was created in collaboration with Story Pirates, and important emotional turning points are effectively punctuated with thematically-appropriate notes, typically read aloud by members of the ensemble. Notes are often turned into full-fledged musical numbers with titles such as “Official Summer To Do” and “Barf Bag Breakup.” The six members of the ensemble play many characters, and at one point, a member of the audience is even brought on stage to interpret a message.
The intimate space at the Los Angeles Theater Center is designed to offer the feeling of attending one of Davy’s live performances in a bar, and the walls of the set (Sibyl Wickersheimer) are plastered with found notes and letters—there is even a section where audience members are encouraged to add their own. It takes a bit to settle into the rhythm of this quirky musical. The combination of short interludes, classic musical theater numbers prompted by the characters’ emotions, and meta performances of the notes makes for a lot of moving pieces, but the frenetic feeling subsides a bit as the story and relationships advance. There are undoubtedly trims that could be made—the whole thing clocks in at around two and a half hours with an intermission, and while it’s a testament to the production that the pacing never truly drag, some tightening would only strengthen the emotional core and message.
The talented cast is really making the most of this material. Platt, who appeared on Broadway in Wicked, has the most difficult task in maintaining Davy’s likability when he’s working overtime to alienate his friends and make poor decisions. But he does so deftly, and the emotional arc is easy to follow even when you may disagree. Kai Burnett, previously seen by Los Angeles audiences in Scissorhands at Rockwell Table & Stage, brings equal depth to Denise, who slowly lets her guard down throughout the show, getting a moment in the spotlight on the emotional act one closer “Stupid Love.” Millan’s entertaining performance makes you wish the musical didn’t neglect his character—it would be nice to know more about him aside from that he is gay and goes on a lot of dates. But it’s truly the ensemble who has the most heavy-lifting. Each gets their moment in the spotlight, although Zehra Fazal is a standout in the funny act two number “What You Want.”
In lesser hands, this musical might not work as well as it does here. While you’re unlikely to find yourself humming any of the songs on your way home, the score is solid and well-sung by the cast. The production makes great use of the unique space, both physically thanks to the lively choreography (Kathryn Burns) and auditorily thanks to the smart music direction (Frank Galgano and Matt Castle). Any shortcomings of the main storyline in terms of originality are made up for by the emotion and humor of the found letters and notes. They’re a lovely, heartfelt glimpse into the human experience, and it is impossible to not be taken in by the charm exuding from every aspect of this production.
Found runs at the Los Angeles Theater Center in downtown LA through March 23rd. The running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased here.