By Bryson David Hoff
Though Nashville may be called “Music City,” Chicago’s vibrant and diverse music scene has given birth to some of the most influential pop acts of the last quarter-century, including Kanye West, “The Smashing Pumpkins,” “Wilco,” Chance The Rapper, and “Fall Out Boy,” to name just a few. This rich musical culture, often unacknowledged by those who are not immediately involved with it, takes center stage in Chicago Theatre Workshop’s premiere production of Creatives.
The play centers on a songwriting competition among students in Paul Brenner (Matt Kahler)’s capstone songwriting class at one of Chicago’s city colleges. The stakes are made higher because the competition is being judged by Brenner’s former protégé, Sean O’Neil (Bradford Lund), a pop star who has returned to his hometown on a concert tour and who has decided to offer a $5,000 cash prize and an opportunity to serve as his opening act to the winner. The twist is that the competition is blind: each student has been randomly assigned one of their classmates’ songs to perform.
The competitors consist of eccentric hipster-stoner Jeremy (Jake Bradley), who has a tendency to put his foot in his mouth; Paul’s lover Jennifer (Nicole Lambert), who has grown tired of the amount of effort she must put in to keep their relationship a secret; the troubled Luis (Felipe Jorge), who is dealing with the aftermath of his father’s death; Jessica (Maggie Ward), Luis’s Goth girlfriend; party girl Ashley (Rainey Wright), who struggles to find material for her music besides her active sex life; the right-wing Eric (Vasily Deris), whose political views and mainstream music taste put him at odds with the rest of the group; Sheila (Elisa Carlson), a talented multi-instrumentalist who copes with her failure to make a career in LA with a low-key cocaine habit; and Marcus (Brian Nelson), a young black man with an affection for the music of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie.
This ensemble assembled by director Tom Mullen is nigh flawless, each with a well-tuned pop voice and instrumental acumen, and together possessing a strong chemistry that makes the performances feel lived in. Kahler in particular turns in a strong performance as the conflicted and embittered professor, able to project wisdom and folly in equal measure. Lund, too, fully inhabits his character’s smarmy narcissism, making his position as the judge of the competition as infuriating for the audience as it is for the characters, as his vapidity and lack of genuine interest becomes more and more apparent.
Likewise, the score, consisting partly of pre-existing music with new tunes by Laurence Mark Wythe, is well curated and executed. A great deal of thought has clearly gone into the selection of existing songs, and the choices made match the sensibilities of the characters in such a way that they don’t feel tacked on or out of place. Wythe’s original compositions are likewise artfully constructed and fit the characters that are meant to have written them in the world of the play. Furthermore, they are more than capable of holding their own next to the pop tunes included in the score with more than a few earworms in the bunch.
It’s important to note, however, that per the modus operandi of the Chicago Theatre Workshop, Creatives is still a work in progress, and the book, co-authored by Trainspotting scribe Irvine Welsh and Chicago novelist Don De Grazia belies this fact, as the pacing in the show’s current form is a shade rushed. There are a lot of good ideas here, but the current 90-minute, one-act structure leaves many of them without enough room to develop, particularly when the topic of politics comes up. It’s no secret that these are politically fraught times, and theatre has a definite responsibility to address the issues at play in the world. But moments where topics like Trumpism and culture wars come and go so abruptly that the play doesn’t seem to ever settle on points of view make them seem superfluous.
In addition, without giving anything away, the major plot twist that occurs about three quarters of the way through is inadequately set up, to the point where it runs the risk of derailing the plot completely. Thankfully, the characters Welsh and De Grazia have created are engaging enough and the actors playing them talented enough to keep the play from shaking apart, but it is still definitely an issue that the writers would do well to address in future revisions. The skeleton of the show, however, is solid and the characters and situation intriguing enough for the script to be extended to further develop the political themes and iron out the structural kinks.
All said, in its current form, this show is still well worth the watch. The performances and music are excellent and, despite its flaws, the book has potential that will no doubt be more fully realized in the next draft. In the meanwhile, Chicago audiences should relish the opportunity to check out this rough draft of a potential future blockbuster.
Chicago Theatre Workshop presents “Creatives” at The Edge Theatre, 5451 North Broadway, Chicago, through March 5. Tickets are available here.