This is a ridiculously hysterical story about two office workers: Ben, who aspires to be a writer, and Maggie, who aspires to be an artist, who find their mundane, soul-crushing day interrupted by a persistent spam e-mail. Somehow, and it’s best not to worry too much about exactly how, clicking on the spam propels them into a magical land populated by stock characters like the Cop Three Days Away From Retirement, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the Cuban Drug Lord and the Sexy Librarian. In order to save the day, Ben and Maggie must join a band of rebel cliches who dream of becoming three dimensional to defeat the evil tyrant overlord before they become cliches themselves.
This is also a story of two friends and artistic collaborators, Peter Gwinn and Jody Shelton who, for more than 15 years, had been basically crowd-sourcing musicals with “Baby Wants Candy,” an improv group that creates fully orchestrated, 60-minute shows on the spot, from one audience suggestion. For those who haven’t seen a production at BWC, (now worldwide, Chicago is still their home – check out their current offerings here) the experience can be hard to describe, but imagine watching a stage full of actors and musicians performing a fully formed musical, with a beginning, middle and end – right there in front of you, second by second, for the very first and final time, ever. It seems an impossible feat. And yet our heroes, Gwinn and Shelton, and their plucky band of improvisers have done it successfully for years. But that’s not even what this story is about.
This story is about how eventually, it occurred to Gwinn and Shelton, that after improvising literally hundreds of musicals together, it was high time they buckled down and wrote one together. If anyone had the training and experience required to tackle an original musical, certainly the smart money is on these guys. But, like many writers before them, they soon hit a snag. The problem? Without the audience suggesting an idea of where to begin, they’d have to come up with one on their own. What if their idea wasn’t original?
It might be easy for some to dismiss this kind of creative insecurity and to say “there’s nothing new under the sun.” After all, as the character of Shakespeare points out in the play, there’s a finite number of plots. But this is something that artists struggle with daily, and, one can argue, is an example of a more widespread, human concern that affects us all: what if I’m not good enough? Should I even try? What Gwinn and Shelton came to realize what is that they could write about just that—the fear of being unoriginal. And, if their years with BWC had taught them anything, it was that the most important thing was whether or not the audience is having fun.
This story (The Story of a Story (the Untold Story)) is absolutely a story about the audience having lots of fun. Director/Choreographer Christopher Pazdernik guides a fantastic ensemble, most of whom are playing multiple self-aware stock characters, with hilarious results.
Kevin Bishop is clearly the lovechild of Cabaret’s Master of Ceremonies and the chief Blue Meanie from Yellow Submarine. His high-octane, over-the-top evil overlord Masterful sets the pace and the energy level for the rest of the players to match, which it is by Jessica Vann, Gerald Richardson, Jonas Davidow, Jacob Fjare and Kirk Jackson, who are are each pee-your-pants funny in their various roles. Hard to pick a favorite, but Rachel Page shines as she lampoons several sexist stereotypes, including Patricia, the aforementioned sexy librarian, a fairytale princess, a trailer park dumb blonde and a comic con nerd obsessed with her inhalers. Sit in the front row to catch her ad libs.
Sarah Hoch is also wonderful as Dee, a recognizable Manic Pixie, complete with ukulele and a terminal disease which will take her away in the prime of her quirky youth. Thankfully, in her dying breath, discovers she has a back story.
As Ben and Maggie, the co-workers dragged into this world, Max DeTogne and Lauren Paris have a nervous chemistry built upon mutual snark and disdain, and it’s fun to see that develop into real admiration and affection for each other. They each get a stand-out solo near the end of the show. Kirk Osgood provides a convincing foil to the couple as the fanfiction obsessed Darwin, the guy you love to hate.
There’s definitely some inside baseball type humor for English majors, namely jokes delivered by and about Shakespeare (Luke Meierdiercks) and the Wife of Bath (Kate Garassino). Meierdiercks, consistently funny as the doomed Sgt. Breck, a scantily clad back-up dancer, and a tuxedoed Bond-esque hero, is best as Shakespeare—cracking himself up with groan-worthy puns. And if you don’t remember your Freshman year Chaucer class well enough to recall who the Wife of Bath was, no worries—she explains her relevance succinctly, summing it up with, “I may not have been fart joke big, but I was big.” Her Act 2 song, “A Tale No Longer Told,” is as chillingly moving as it is funny. Although Garassino sings—stunningly—of her character’s literal fate: she’s a story no one knows anymore, this tune could stand alone outside of the musical as the ultimate femme fatale torch song, served by the metaphorical interpretation of the lyrics.
Pazdernik’s choreography is efficiently scaled back due to the restrictions of the space at Chopin, but showcases the strong dancers in the cast well while perfectly capturing the humor of the music. This is seen especially in Dee’s Brittany-Meets-Katy-Meets-Janet’s terrific dance number, “If You’re Not” and in the finale. What’s a show about cliches without a big kick-line?
Under the direction of David Kornfeld, the amazing pop/rock score is satisfyingly full of musical cliches while still supplying some fresh surprises with its 4-piece live band. On top of that, Sound Designer Patrick O’Brien is pretty much a wizard.
That formula of being originally unoriginal in the music is utilized to great effect in every aspect of the production. As Gwinn explains, “My metaphor for the show is like we’ve taken a whole bunch of lego kits and thrown away the instructions, but use those pieces to make something really cool and original, even though it’s built of parts that will be very familiar to most people.”
This is a story of how insecurity and fear can cripple even the most talented and ambitious of us, rendering us immobile, and stuck in a self-imposed rut. And this is a story about how to get over that and get on with the business of being awesome. This is a story you will love.
Underscore Theatre, Chicago’s Home For New Musicals, presents “The Story of a Story (the Untold Story),” playing at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St., Chicago through November 8. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 9 pm; Sundays at 4 pm and Mondays at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $20 and online here or by phone at (312) 646-0975.