By Bryson David Hoff
The rock musical has been around long enough to no longer be a novelty.
In the many decades since Hair first codified the subgenre, the decision to score a play with rock and roll no longer raises eyebrows, regardless of the plot on which it is hung. That is why it is surprising that, outside of a few jukebox musicals, there are very few shows that focus on the dynamics of a rock band and process of writing the music. In that manner, 33 to Nothing, the latest project from A Red Orchid Theatre, might be considered one of the purest examples of a rock musical.
A character-driven piece, the play is set up as a real-time dramatization of a band rehearsal. The drama arises from the interpersonal conflicts that are brought to light as the quintet tries to put together a set-list for their upcoming gig: the frontman Gray (Aaron Holland) is not only still reeling from his breakup with lead guitarist Bri (Steve Haggard), but is also having trouble processing his mother’s death after a long battle with cancer.
His attempts to cope with these problems through copious amounts of alcohol have also put a rift between him and former best friend Tyler (Amanda Raquel Martinez), who has been showing more and more signs of wanting to leave the music behind and settle down with her wife and the band’s bass player, Alex (Annie Prichard). The nonbinary drummer Barry (Jeff Kurysz) rounds out the ensemble as the most level-headed and often ignored member of the group.
If spectacle can be said to be one of the defining tropes of a rock musical, then 33 to Nothing’s spectacle is the fact that every part of the musical score is created by the five actor/musicians onstage. While making the cast the band is hardly a new idea, the tight musicality of the band and the, for lack of a better term, untheatricality of their execution of the score makes this particular ensemble truly stand out. Unlike so many other rock musicals, the music sounds like what one would hear at a bar gig down on the west side, not like the efforts of a musical theatre composer trying to ape golden age sensibilities through the voices of performers trained in more traditional theatre styles.
If the strength of playwright/composer Grant Varjas’s creation is in its music, however, its weakness is its book. Though not terrible by any means, there is an awful lot going on to squeeze into 33 to Nothing’s 90-minute runtime and, as a result, the stakes of the ensemble drama and the motivations of some of the characters become muddied. Barry in particular often plays as a character with no real purpose in the show other than to play the drums, making it all the more disappointing when her subplot about her demanding and unsupportive offstage girlfriend ultimately goes nowhere.
In fact, for all of Varjas’s ability to write engaging conflict and witty dialogue, there is much that is left unresolved at the end of the evening and not in a dramatically satisfying manner. This is not a catastrophic issue, but it does begin to beg the question of what the audience is meant to take from the latter-day kitchen sink drama that forms the backbone of the play.
While offering an interesting and truthful look at the psychology and strife of being an intensely creative soul in a field that has lost the relevance it once had, the script too often falls into the trap of realist dramas in which characters keep having the same arguments and nothing moves forward. It’s truthful to the nature of the unintentionally toxic, enabling relationships common among artists, especially ones who work together; it’s not always the most engaging thing in the world to watch play out.
That being said, the charisma of the cast is able to cut through the worst of the script’s shortcomings and highlights many of its strengths. These musician/actors have clearly put in the time and work in the rehearsal room not only to build a musical chemistry but an interpersonal one, as well. In a piece that lives and dies on the strength of the cast’s chemistry, the company has built a dynamic in which all the relationships feel lived-in and fully-realized.
As a theatrical experience, A Red Orchid Theatre’s 33 to Nothing is worth the watch for both the acting and musical chops of its performers and offers an engaging and visceral evening’s entertainment, just not a piece that leaves audiences thinking about it for weeks to come.
A Red Orchid Theatre presents 33 to Nothing at 1531 N. Wells St., Chicago through May 27. More information and tickets are available here.