For those unfamiliar with this phenomenon, these weekend-long events (sometimes even longer) are conventions held all over the world to celebrate all things Science Fiction and Fantasy. The passionate attendees of both genders and all ages are obsessed with comic books, graphic novels, TV and films based on such popular culture as Star Trek, Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy and others. Windy City versions of this experience are the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, held at McCormick Place, and the Wizard World Chicago, held every summer in Rosemont.
Typically attracting more than 70,000 participants, these conventions are for fans of comic books, sci-fi/fantasy media of all kinds and horror films, as well as anime, manga, webcomics, fantasy novels and even professional wrestling.
As part of the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival, a three week platform for presenting original musical works written by emerging area composer/lyricists, American Demigods members Reina Hardy (book) and Matt Board (music & lyrics) have created a compact cult musical set within the weirdo world of Comic Con.
In their musical Fanatical, several stories revolve around a certain faction of this fictional convention, devoted to a spies-in-space television show entitled Angel 8. Fans of this program, and the comic book that inspired the series, dress as their favorite characters, enact scenes from the show, purchase souvenirs from the TV program and pay big bucks to hear their guru, keynote speaker and Angel 8 creator, Scott Furnish.
Many conflicts occur in this two-act musical. They include Baxter, a young man who’s not only a big fanboy of Angel 8, but who also discovers his former babysitter and teenage crush Andra, attending the convention, dressed as one of the main characters from the show. Then there’s Craig, a writer from Pump Magazine, who’s secretly infiltrated Comic Con to take photos and write a story about the geeks and freaks who attend the event. Add to this the possibility that keynote speaker Scott Furnish, the LA-based writer of the TV series, may not even make the convention. There are even rumors concerning the future of this popular television show that have every fan on edge. The musical is spangled with catchy tunes, such as “Ready to Launch,” “Me Slash You” and the anthem-like “Best Con Ever.”
Clearly this eclectic little musical is aimed at a specific audience.
Not everyone is able to identify with these geeky groupies; but there’s a definite degree of sassy, cerebral fun within the story proving that everyone loves cheering for the underdog. Opening with an interstellar shootout, the first act takes a while to make sense. By the third or fourth scene, however, it becomes clearer. The strength of the script lies in Act 2, during which the audience fully understands all the characters and their relationships. Theatergoers are, by the end of intermission, ready and eager to discover how these conflicts will be resolved.
Kate Staiger and Ellen Morris, two familiar faces around Chicago, stage, musically direct, choreograph and accompany this production with flair and style. The modest set in a space lined with some black drapes and employing simply a few chairs as dressing direct the focus of Staiger’s production to her eight-member cast.
Of these hardworking actors, Charlotte Ostrow stands out beautifully as Andra. Lovely, totally comfortable with her character and demonstrating a fine singing voice, Ostrow keeps this show flying through the stratosphere. Other terrific performances are found in Kat Evans, as Trix, the Comic Con’s enthusiastic organizer and emcee; Rory Leahy, whose uncredited role as Scott Furnish is strong, humorous and well-sung; Annie Passanisi as the adorable, pigtailed little Lizette; and Sarah Inendino as the always chipper fangirl, Jillian. Stephen Garrett’s character of Craig is almost too soft-spoken and reclusive, but his portrayal is honest. Jeffrey Bouthiette provides a strong voice in his ensemble role, and Michael Carten, while not the best vocalist, gives us an earnest, likable teenage protagonist in Baxter.
This new musical, which certainly deserves a life beyond its limited run, could skyrocket even further with a little tweaking. Staiger’s direction could use a more melodramatic approach. The biggest laughs come when the characters and events escape the gravity of realism and soar over-the-top. The script could also use a little clarification, particularly in Act 1. Right now the play opens with a bang, but it’s a bit confusing. It might better begin with some kind of production number that helps the audience identify the universe they’re observing.
It wouldn’t hurt to know sooner that these are individuals merely pretending to be characters from Angel 8. Right now, it takes the theatergoer time to figure out who these people are and what’s really going on here. This confusion extends well into the next scene or two.
Also, many of Board’s melodies sound a little familiar. They’re too much like some of the show tunes composed by other big-name composers. His lyrics, however, when we’re able to hear and understand them, are clever and lots of fun. And whomever is responsible for the simple, but effective choreography for this production deserves some acknowledgement for his/her stylish creativity.
Set within the geeky subculture world of comic books, science fiction and fantasy, collectively known as Comic Con, Hardy and Board have created an enjoyable musical escapade about the nerds who support and populate these events. Told with tongue-in-cheek drama and urgency, this satisfying little musical, now enjoying a limited premiere in Chicago, offers delight and diversion, particularly to audiences for whom sorcerers and space shuttles seem as real as trees and rocks.
Full information about Underscore Theatre Company’s Second Annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival at The Den Theatre may be found here.