By Barry Reszel
A strong premiere production of millennial musical Next Thing You Know puts the new, city-based Refuge Theatre Project squarely in play for Chicagoland musical theatre patrons’ attention and affection.
Refuge, founded this year by Ross Egan, Morgan Glynn Briggs, Michael Evans and Casey Shipman, takes on the mission of utilizing “the appeal of musical theatre to foster a broader and more accessible theatre community. We aim to further our mission by producing contemporary musical theatre that is free from anything extra. We tell stories about people dealing with life in a way that is meaningful and fun.”
Its production of New York twentysomething musical Next Thing You Know, written by NYU pals Joshua Salzman and Ryan Cunningham, is a significant coming out party.
Featuring terrific performances by the star quartet of Briggs as Waverly, Taylor Okey as Darren, Jameson Wentworth as Luke and Aimee Erickson as Lisa, Next Thing relates the story of four young adults facing their lives’ biggest questions. The full scene/plot summary and production history may be read here. Most importantly, its 20-piece songbook proves a worthy showcase for these four powerhouse performers as well as for Musical Director Evans (piano) and his excellent band: Linda Remaker (violin), Robert Campbell (guitar) and Kelsee Vandervall (cello).
Particular musical highlights include Okey’s “As Good as I Get” and “If She Were Coming Home” as well as his duets with Briggs, “I Wish There Were a Reason” and “All I Want is You.” Erickson’s “You Can’t Be Everything You Want” and “Manhattan Bridge” are both top-notch, as is Wentworth’s duet, “The Way to Get a Girl” (with Okey). The quartet’s choral singing is precise and harmonies tight.
Director Egan uses the small space (30-ish capacity) inside the Den Theatre to its maximum potential. Sets are creatively mobile, and the show’s one act, 80-minute pacing is just perfect. It will be interesting to see what he as artistic director does with future productions; the company website lists Glory Days is its next show in 2015.
The terrific compositions and young characters make Next Thing an appropriate choice for Refuge, a company looking specifically to showcase new, youthful work. But it might also serve as a warning, because this show’s greatest hindrance is that its characters become caricatures of their generation’s biggest perceived flaw—self-centeredness.
Truth is, the story about four semi-connected folks, set mostly in a pub, works if the connections among them are the highlights. But these characters care a lot more about themselves than one another or anyone else, and it makes none of them particularly compassionate or overly likeable.
The New York Times reviewer who suggested in 2011 that Next Thing could be the equivalent of Rent for the millennial generation simply can’t justify comparing the first-world self-indulgence of these four with the AIDS crisis and homelessness. When some of the greatest grit comes from troubles with smoking cessation, hangovers and the need to be more observant, it’s fair to call this story line shallow.
In no way does that overshadow the high quality of the Refuge production; the performers’ strong, professional performances; or the quality songbook. Besides, this observation is the opinion of one.
Indeed, this is musical theatre worthy of attending and a company deserving of support. Because the next thing you know, Refuge Theatre Project might just be the next big thing.
“Next Thing You Know” runs through March 8 at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 6 pm. Tickets are $15 and available online at www.refugetheatre.com or by calling 773-231-7691.