Demystifying Mystic Pizza Reboot – Hold the Pepperoni!

Krystina Alabado, Kyra Kennedy and Gianna Yanelli star in the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, Lively McCabe Entertainment, McCoy Rigby Entertainment & Riverside Theatricals production of “MYSTIC PIZZA,” directed by Casey Hushion and now playing at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.   PHOTO CREDIT:  Jason Niedle

Mystic Pizza is a thoroughly enjoyable, consummately unoriginal musical play, from top to bottom. This retread of the 1988 movie is essentially a coming of age story about three young women in the eponymous Mystic, a seaside town in Connecticut. The trio – Daisy Arujo (Krystina Alabado), her sister Kat (Kyra Kennedy) and their friend Jojo Barboza (Gianna Yanelli) – are searching for romance and their pathways in life, yearning for a more fulfilling life than mere housewifery and drudgery in proletarian Mystic. This timeworn plot is, however, set in a fairly novel social milieu, namely a community with many residents of Portuguese descent, a minority group that doesn’t get much attention in U.S. pop culture.

Mystic Pizza has an element of class conflict and envy in that the smalltown Portuguese characters are blue collar, either making their living as fishermen or, in the case of the three leads, by working in Mystic’s titular pizza parlor. Located only about 55 miles from Yale, Mystic’s beleaguered “townies” contend with Ivy Leaguers and Waspy elitists, who are their “superiors” in the American pecking order. During the Reagan era back in the 1980s, when this story takes place, white newcomers to America and their first-generation children were considered “immigrants,” while Yankee Doodle Dandies with English roots who could trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower or Jamestown, et al, were regarded as “settlers” of a better breed. The former, hailing from Southern European stock, tend to be brunettes, while the latter lean towards the blonde.

This La Mirada Theatre production, directed by Casey Hushion, has some canny casting by casting director Julia Flores with a nod towards realism. None of the three female leads possess the dazzling smile and allure of that “Pretty Woman,” Julia Roberts, who starred in the MGM movie. While reasonably attractive, none are great beauties, and as pretty ordinary looking young ladies, they are therefore believable as everyday working class women. Albeit that the thesps’ talent – as actresses, singers and dancers – is quite extraordinary, as they vividly bring alive their characters who want more out of life than the drab prospect of merely slinging slices of pizza in their old hometown. 

As far as I could discern, the derivation of this saga’s title is mainly geographical, although the delicious “secret sauce” that the pizza shop’s longtime proprietor, Leona Silvia (the vivacious, droll Rayanne Gonzales), has formulated may have mystical qualities. Which leads this biased reviewer to what I found to be the play’s most interesting character: The highbrow Hector, The Fireside Gourmet, who is a TV food critic. As comically played by Jeff Skowron (who has multiple roles), this rarefied arbiter of (literally) taste is snooty and hoity-toity, as over the airwaves he blithely dishes out thumbs up or down, determining the fate of restaurants, with the imperiousness of a Roman Emperor at a gladiator match in the Coliseum. As the aging Leona contemplates selling her pizzeria, enter the fussy Fireside Gourmet – and you don’t have to be Nostradamus to predict what will happen. Be that as it may, it was a treat for this reviewer to see a member of his profession dramatized, which is a rarity. (However, The Man Who Came to Dinner, a 1939 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart and a 1942 movie, plus the 2018 documentary What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael do come to mind.)

 There is a trend of recycling productions from one medium to another, milking their material and brand name to squeeze profit from repurposed work. In particular, films are reworked and often given the musical treatment. Sometimes, topnotch pictures are refurbished, such as the comedies The Producers and Young Frankenstein, which their originator Mel Brooks helped spin off for the stage (ironically, the 2005 Hollywood version of the former was nowhere as good as either the Broadway musical or the “Hitler-ious” 1967 classic with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder). But apparently, most of these screen-to-stage recycled shows breathe new life into mediocre movies that arguably should have been left gathering dust on the shelf, and don’t deeply (if at all) involve the originators in the updated creative process. 

Such appears to be the case with the musical adaptation, book by Sandy Rustin, now on the boards at La Mirada Theatre, whose motto seems to be: “Crowd pleasers are us.” (Don’t expect to see Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night staged there unless it’s rewritten as a romantic musical comedy.) In all likelihood the most outstanding thing about 1988’s Mystic Pizza was that it was Julia Roberts’ breakout role, her first major hit, co-written by Amy Holden Jones and directed by Donald Petrie.

To compound this musical rendition’s total lack of originality, from Wagner to John Cougar Mellencamp, not a single song in Mystic Pizza’s entire score was written specifically for this play, which bills itself as having “hits of the 80s and 90s.” First of all, this isn’t even accurate, as Richard Wagner’s 19th century “Bridal Chorus (from ‘Lohengrin’)” to “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (performed by the Supremes and lest we forget, Vanilla Fudge, in 1966 and 1967) to “I Think We’re Alone Now” (which Tommy James and the Shondells performed in 1967) are most definitely not pieces from the ’80s and ’90s. In any case, I find it to be very dubious when songs written and performed by artists for totally other reasons are coopted and used in contemporary musicals for their own purposes (usually box office).

But having said that, to be fair there are a couple of natural, good segue ways that work well within the storyline, including Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and the sexy “I Think We’re Alone Now.”  The music – performed live onstage, not in the La Mirada’s orchestra pit – may be unoriginal, but it is nevertheless delightful, belted out by a five or six-piece band. It’s hard to beat my former Richmond Hill High School classmate Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 hit “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” which is a sort of leitmotif for this musical adaptation. And appropriately so, as it does express the protagonists’ yearning to enjoy and get more out of life, which was the same motivation for Lauper, that Ozone Park proletarian girl (listen, if you’d attended Richmond Hill like we did, you’d just wanna have fun, too!). Like Lauper, Daisy, Kat and Jojo were also tired of being asked “When you gonna live your life right?” by their parents. (Lauper’s lovely 1986 “True Colors” is also sung.)

The musical’s arrangements and orchestrations are by Carmel Dean, and the music inspires the cast to rock out onstage with some outstanding choreography by Connor Gallagher, a sight to behold. The opening night audience, too, was inspired by the entertaining performance, singing and music, which we sometimes clapped along with. Also worth pointing out is the set, by scenic designer Nate Bertone, which does capture the feel of a coastal Connecticut community. Throughout the play various elements meant to indicate where that scene’s action is meant to be taking place – the pizza parlor, a home and so on – are wheeled on and off the boards.

Although there’s nothing new under the sun in this retread of a so-so 1988 movie, you don’t have to be Cyndi Lauper to know audiences just want to have fun. Which they’ll have in abundance watching and listening to this amiable, rollicking, good fun knock-off about the quest of three working class heroines for love, meaning and joie de vivre.   

The West Coast premiere of Mystic Pizza is being performed 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays; 8:00 p.m. on Fridays; 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. on Saturdays; and 1:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays through Dec. 3 at to the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada, CA. For info see: or call (562)944-9801 or (714)994-6310.  


photo #1: Jordan Friend, Gianna Yanelli, Domo D’dante, Michael James and Jake Swain, photo 2 and 3:The company of the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts photo 3: PHOTO CREDIT: Jason Niedle