By Bryson David Hoff
There is a classic note given in introductory writing courses all across the world, a three word criticism that covers perhaps the most common mistake made by new writers: “Show, don’t tell.” A character’s qualities should be revealed organically through the action of a story instead of simply stated to the audience. This becomes especially important in a visual medium like theatre, where narration is a trickier device to use effectively. While not the only issue plaguing Revolution Chicago, an independent production currently playing on the thrust stage at Stage 773, the use of “tell” rather than “show” is one of the most central and frustrating.
Based on a true story, Revolution Chicago is about the beginnings of house music, which arose out of the underground club scene in Chicago during the mid-to-late 1980s. The plot follows Mickey “Mixin’” Oliver (Brandon Janssen), a young DJ who came to prominence in the house music scene as a member of the Hot Mix 5, who brought failing Chicago radio station WBMX from the lowest to the highest-rated station in the city and brought global attention to the house music genre.
If this summary glosses over some of the finer points of Oliver’s career, that is because the script spends very little time on them either. The salient information about Oliver’s past and personal struggles is near-universally simply described in one of the many long passages given to his character’s girlfriend, Erna, whose only defining personality trait seems to be fawning over Mickey about “How much [he’s] overcome.” The first time one of these speeches occurs, the natural assumption is that it is teasing what the audience is going to see over the course of the evening. The second time it happens, it becomes clear that this exposition is a substitute for showing any details of the actual events.
Perhaps the most bizarre “tell, don’t show” choice of the entire production is the music. Specifically how little of it there is. There are several times throughout the proceedings where one or more of the cast members will sing and/or dance to a backing track of one of the real-life house mixes of the era, but this happens only a handful of times and it never really seems connected to the story. The singing is good and the dancing expertly executed, if occasionally a bit strangely choreographed for the genre, but it all seems to beg the question “To what end?” If the audience is meant to buy into how amazing the genre is or how remarkable it was that it was birthed in the very same city where they now sit, why is it that they are given so little exposure to it? Forget live performance (which are kind of anathema to a genre where editing is the centerpiece anyway), there aren’t even any bits of incidental music playing over the silent scene changes.
What are we given instead? Any number of scenes where Mickey and his various DJ friends sit around and discuss how incredible the things happening around them are and how such-and-such new mix is “amazing.” One of these scenes even includes the only concrete information in the script about what house music even is and how it is different from disco or any of the other forms of electronic dance music that evolved at the same time and have continued to evolve since. To put it into perspective using a recent, famous example, it’s like if Bohemian Rhapsody had not only omitted the title song from its soundtrack, but also not made any mention of the notoriously intense recording process and pioneering use of multi-tracking and overdubbing that made Queen such an historical band.
So, if Revolution Chicago isn’t using its two-hour runtime to develop its plot or engage in elaborate musical numbers, what actually happens in it? The answer, for the most part, is skits. In what is probably meant as an homage to the interstitial scripted comedy that would break up sets of music on the radio of that era, a shocking amount of the runtime is devoted to hackneyed, vaudeville-esque skits that are occasionally tangentially related to the story, but sometimes seem to be schtick for schtick’s sake. On top of this, because the story beats are so ill-defined, unless you know a lot about this particular period and genre of dance music, it’s hard to pick out what, if any, of these sketches are meant to be satirizing. As such, they just read like a very tired 40s cabaret act that do nothing to make the plot any clearer, nor, frankly, are they funny enough to be a worthy distraction.
The result of all of these faults is a disjointed, messy production. It is telling that at the performance upon which this review is based, the audience didn’t seem to realize that curtain call was happening until the full company bow. At its best, it is simply boring and at its worst it comes off as a shameless exercise in self-aggrandizement, given that the real Mickey Oliver is the show’s producer, director and writer. Knowing that fact, all of the speeches where characters compliment the fictionalized Mickey on creations we never get to hear or stand in awe of him for overcoming hardships we never get to see suddenly become that much more difficult to stomach. The only lingering emotions after seeing it are pity for the performers for having devoted their time and talent to such a dead fish of a script and bitter frustration at having had one’s night wasted by watching it.
Revolution Chicago Inc. presents Revolution Chicago at Stage 773 1225 W. Chicago Avenue through September 29. More information and tickets are available at www.revolutionchi.com