SAN DIEGO — Surviving as an actress or musician is rough in any city, but as Christine Sevec and Stu Shames are proving at one of San Diego's newest little theaters, the best work is sometimes forged through hardship.
These two very talented performers may not realize what they have done for themselves with "Lost in the City," currently at Triteria, above La Maison restaurant on 5th Avenue. Their original, two-hour musical revue is gold salvaged from the ruins of mental anguish, a good-natured shrug at the traumas the transplanted Philadelphians have endured as undiscovered San Diego artists.
"Lost in the City" should help. If they weren't "discovered" before, they certainly are now. The lucky souls who know about Triteria have been soaking up a wonderful evening of song, sentiment and silliness at bargain prices, taking advantage of Shames' and Sevec's current career status.
Until now, their faces may have been familiar only to customers at Piret's, where Sevec works as a waitress, or Kung Food, which relies on Shames' cooking. Now that they have mined the humor of their "Lifestyles of the Poor But Talented" (to steal one of their best lines), Sevec may no longer have to do her Juliet with a side order of Julienne ham and snow peas (as she sings in "The Waitress"), and Shames can stop dreaming his "Piano Man's Nightmare" (the revue's best satire).
The showcase performance brings to mind statistics of performers who have nurtured their art here, then fled to more lucrative locales. When Sevec belts out one of her incredible blues numbers, or simmers into a sultry love song, displaying the kind of voice that does not stay in the background for long, Whoopi Goldberg's name slips into consciousness--a reminder that there have been other gems polished on small San Diego stages.
Shames, who generally sticks close to his piano, has written the music and lyrics for the show's 18 original songs. Some of the poetry is basic, but the melodies are quite nice, covering a range of contemporary musical styles and dipping into enough jazzy blues to show off Sevec's Billie Holliday voice and keep the piano man's fingers moving.
The title number is a musical letter to Momma in Philadelphia, sung in counterpoint by musician and actress to set up the theme of starving artists struggling to adapt in a strange city.
A few of the songs would work in any locale, focusing on universal woes like lovers who don't come home on time and daydreams nourished since the age of 5. Others are San Diego specific, cashing in on the two performers' comic gifts (most recently displayed in their work with the improvisational comedy troupe, Modern Times).
Shames and Sevec have fun with the Reader--a local weekly that concentrates on the entertainment business. They make reference to the hallowed trio of critics, "St. Jon, St. Jeff and St. Duncan," and spin clever tunes inspired by the Reader's personal ads. Two of these, the comic "I'm Just a Man Who Can't Say Yes to No" and Sevec's beautiful "Goodnite," compete for best of show.
Director Will Roberson, credited as one of the show's creators, may also have influenced the setting, a cityscape outline painted on a black backdrop and a nifty display of laundry hanging overhead (black stockings, red garter belt, huge boxer shorts). Brett Kelly's lighting design reaches a higher level of complexity than one might expect, given the shrimpiness of the stage and the straightforward approach of the revue.
In its present form, "Lost in the City" is mostly music, an impressionistic sampling of the lives of its performers with just a few words spoken here and there to keep the theme going. Sevec spends most of the evening miming little bits of action, making faces or dancing a bit. She is joined occasionally by Shames for short skits that are more improvisation than conventional theater.
Perhaps they feared a greater commitment to the work, not realizing what a priceless commodity their desperation has wrought. It is easy for an outsider to imagine the two going back to the typewriter and the keyboard and coming up with a full-blown musical comedy fit for any city. That is, if they can stand the restaurant business just a little bit longer.
Meanwhile, "Lost in the City" is a good ticket for those who like to be in on the first wave of a hot item. "LOST IN THE CITY"
Created by Stu Shames, Christine Sevec and Will Roberson. Music and lyrics by Stu Shames. Produced by Bryan Scott and Brett Kelly. Lighting by Kelly. Featuring Christine Sevec and Stu Shames. Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. through Sept. 27 at Triteria, 3681 5th Ave., San Diego (above La Maison restaurant). (619) 298-0811.