By Sheri and Josh Flanders
Sheri and Josh are an interracial, married, Chicago-based comedy writing and performing duo and contributors to ChicagolandMusicalTheatre.com. The following conversation was spawned by attending Flies! The Musical, presented by Pride Films & Plays.
JOSH: It seems everything gets a musical treatment eventually, from TV shows (90210) to comics (Spiderman) to movies (The Producers, Die Hard, etc.), so it’s no surprise that Flies! The Musical has come to The Broadway, Pride Arts Center’s larger stage. The concept is timely and acts like a play-within-a-play, as a group of high school students putting on a musical adaptation of William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies gets abandoned in a forest preserve. The theater describes it as “Waiting for Guffman meets Glee” which, in terms of plot, it is; however in tone, character development and richness it doesn’t hold a roasted squirrel to those touchstones.
SHERI: The show opens with an ominous Sweeny Todd-esque opening number, along with tight, crackling choreography by Sawyer Smith that is extraordinarily impactful in a small venue. The simple, yet bright, music (seamlessly delivered by music director J.D. Caudill) is well executed overall and dance numbers are exciting and surprisingly athletic. Unfortunately, this play-within-a-play is largely stuck within the linty confines of its own belly-button. This musical is for hardcore theater folks; amusing itself with inside-baseball jokes and self-referential bits and winks at all of its own jokes.
JOSH: I agree. The approach is very tongue-in-cheek. Overall, the women outshine the men in this production. Missy Wise (as Pig Tails) shines as the bespectacled lead; her character is the most developed and her voice extraordinary. She is the highlight of the show and her jokes also land the strongest. Overall however, the script relies on characters hitting their puns and jokes again and again until they are as dead as a slaughtered pig.
SHERI: It’s un-CONCH-ionable how many conch jokes can fit into one song.
JOSH: This is a missed opportunity, especially with all the wonderful British slang at their disposal! (How many synonyms did Golding use for “crazy” alone? “Barmy,” “batty,” “bomb happy,” “cracked,” “crackers” and on.) The script insists on laboriously repeating the same play on words, giving the cast a limited vocabulary, not unlike like the children they portray (except when breaking the 4th wall to remind us they’re in their late-20s) while poking fun at the British accent. (A mispronunciation of “asthma” that was barely funny the first time does not get funnier on the seventh occurrence.)
SHERI: For those not familiar with Lord of the Flies, the story follows the adventures of a group of young boys who become stranded on an island and devolve into savagery. Luckily, being familiar with the book is not a requirement for enjoying Flies! The Musical.
One of most well-written moments in Flies! culminates with three of the male characters singing the song “How Far Would You Go.” This scene has the most character development of the entire musical and provides a bright window into what this piece could have been with more of a commitment to character. We are treated to a glimpse of the beginnings of a budding romance storyline between Rick (Mario Aivazian) and Stephen (Nicky Mendelsohn) amplified through conflict by Jake (Jeff Meyer) that is sadly immediately left by the wayside for less interesting fare.
JOSH: Not every work of literature deserves a musical (I’m looking at you, James Joyce’s Ulysses!) and Lord of the Flies may be one of them. The structure of the book doesn’t really lend itself to the stage and, like the book, the musical saves its best scenes and action for the end, including the “I wish” solo, beautifully sung by Missy Wise. Despite their silly treatment of montage as a vehicle to move the plot along (already better accomplished by the South Park/Team America creators and numerous others) most songs are plot or character focused without moving the story forward or furthering character.
SHERI: Christea Parent is a highlight of the production, an extraordinary vocal talent as the tap-dancing Park Ranger who serves as a moral compass for the kids.
JOSH: Yes! I wanted to see more of that hilarious character and her Minnesota accent.
SHERI: Unfortunately, her skills are wasted, as she bizarrely spends the entire hour first hour of the show sulking onstage without a single line to speak. Jayla Williams-Craig also shows incredible talent yet is criminally underused as an underwritten cookie-cutter Mean Girls stereotype. The comic-relief characters, the two young’uns, played with devilishly impish energy by Ryan Armstrong and Joey Fontanetta, deserved far wittier zingers than the hoary duds they were often saddled with.
JOSH: Several things, like Christea Parent’s “mute” character and other character arcs, were introduced and abandoned with no exploration or pay off.
SHERI: Flies! is at its strongest when it descends into complete silliness. One mirthfully funny song “The Flora and Fauna are my Friends” features cameos from some unexpected visitors and breaks the otherwise thin and predictable story for delicious, delightful fun. Later in the play, a witty and well-written Little Shop of Horrors parody captures that same hilariously enjoyable tone for some of the biggest laughs of the show.
JOSH: Don’t worry about missing any references, because writer Larry Todd Cousineau makes sure to call them all out clearly, repeatedly jerking the audience back and forth from the source material and hammering the same few parody points ad nauseum.
SHERI: I think you mentioned that already.
JOSH: That this musical is too aware that it’s a parody and will not let the audience forget it?
SHERI: You just mentioned it again.
JOSH: Point taken.
SHERI: A veritable cabin-fire of a musical, Flies! is tonally inconsistent. With some sexually explicit references, it is not quite “family friendly;” stuck in stereotype, it does not pull off parody as well as it could…..
JOSH: Bollocks! You just ….
SHERI: Quit mucking about. Flies! is far too reliant on repeatedly mining the same handful of jokes for increasingly diminishing returns. Yet Flies! does have some smashing music, wonderfully talented actors and a handful of legitimately funny moments that perhaps warrant the writers putting on their stage-glasses, praying to the stage gods, and taking a crack at a second-draft.
FLIES! THE MUSICAL runs Thursday through Sunday nights through June 10 at The Broadway at Pride Arts Center, 4319 N. Broadway, Chicago. More information and tickets available here. Photos by Paul Goyette.