By Patrick O’Brien
There have been plenty of contemporary musical theater song cycles about standing on the brink, on the verge, on the ledge of some great breakthrough or release or paradigm shift. Things to Ruin, though, may be the only one to feature the paradigm shift of finding out a childhood chum now does porno.
Chicagoland, meet Joe Iconis.
One of musical theatre’s more prolific new voices, Iconis has penned songs for everything from teen lit to blacksploitation spoofs to NBC’s Smash. Things to Ruin further bolsters his offbeat versatility. Vivid and occasionally lurid, his songs tease out the tormented adolescent id inside everyone, no matter how old or well-adjusted.
In this regard, Refuge Theater Project — a newish, site-specific musical theater company already with many successes to its name — may have outdone themselves on this one. They probably picked the most adolescently defiant venue in Chicago: Exit, the self-described “original punk bar.” Upstairs — within the walls caked with band stickers and casual vulgarities — they’ve carved out a little niche behind a chain link fence that its merrily cockeyed band have called home.
Is the fence keeping us out? Or keeping them in? Either way, once the gates are open, there’s no turning any of them off.
Some of them think the answer to their tetchy discontent is violence. (Jeff Meyer and his eyeliner’s consciously edgy “War Song.”) Others, denial and retreat. (Madison Kauffman’s hilariously over-insistent “Just Means.”) Others, just saying “screw it” and going about their way. (Lauren Paris’s “Everybody’s at the Bar,” who doesn’t say “screw it” as much as gloriously screlt it to the heavens.)
But not every song is go-to-hell, start-a-riot pent-up rage. Iconis is smart enough to inject some more sober, introspective numbers to balance out the program. Both Meyer and Kedgrick Pullums, Jr. have sweet back-to-back songs about the realization that youthful friendships aren’t the most permanent things (“Dodge Ball” and “Alberqueque Anyway,” respectively). And Thomas Squires plays an endearingly geeky romantic. (“Nerd Love” and “Son of a Gun”)
Some numbers are also just fun for the helluvit. Content-wise, “Honey” is probably the most “normal,” just a simple groovy little love song. Deanalis Resto, however, turns it into gold.
Through all this, Maisie Rose floats around in the background as something of an audience surrogate, watching the parade of oddballs go by. But really, for as much as the title promises gleeful defiance and destruction (and occasionally delivers), it’s really a song cycle of self-actualization. So when she really opens up at the end with the concluding thesis, “Almost There,” it lands…it really lands.
And, if punk club sets your eardrums on edge, fear not. For their part, both Mike Evans as music director and Amanda Ziegler on sound strike a reasonable balance between the sheer volume required for a pop/rock show and textual clarity. You’ll bop along and laugh. Or cry. Or nod in recognition.
It’s strangely endearing, really. For all Ruin’s self-deprecation, the evening never quite veers head-on into irony or sarcasm, as much as Ruin’s parade of characters try them on for size and desperately wish they’d fit. Sometimes, you just gotta feed that inner angsty and excessively earnest teenager.
If Joe Iconis is the gatekeeper, contemporary MT is anything but ruinous.
Refuge Theatre Project presents “Things to Ruin” through June 18 at Exit Chicago, 1315 W North Ave. More information and tickets are available here.