The Brothers Rigg, Ian and Quinn, represented ChicagolandMusicalTheatre.com at MCL Chicago’s third annual Premier Premieres! weekend festival in late June, attending and reviewing all five of the festival’s musical productions (reviews below).
Designed to celebrate new original musical comedies for Chicago’s vibrant comedy scene, these never-before-produced musicals premiered, with Annie Pulsipher and Alex Petti‘s The Trouble With Dead Boyfriends selected by a three-judge panel as the festival’s top choice. The distinction earns their show a six-performance run at MCL (Dates and times are TBA).
Read Ian’s and Quinn’s reviews (in the presentation order at the festival) of all five participating productions below, and keep an eye out for future productions of each.
Iron Irene: A Musical Fable
Writer and Producer: Liz Falstreau
Composer and Musical Director: Ashley Flanagan
Director: Alan Cosby
By Quinn Rigg
Throughout history, humanity has demonstrated an innate desire to tell stories: to craft fables and folktales that entertain and inspire the imagination. Fables are intended to reflect the best within people when confronted by the worst around them—they create characters relatable enough to believe, yet powerful enough to respect.
Set in the wild, lawless wasteland of 1886 Wyoming, Iron Irene: A Musical Fable follows the spunky, well-read Cassie DeLanie as she visits her widowed land-owning sister, the titular “hard as iron” Irene Wright; the reunited sisters quickly become strong catalysts for change and improvement in their small, uneducated, yet eager town, and antics ensue. A villainous gang of vagabonds comes to ravage the town, and Irene dies in a shootout defending the town that she has worked so hard to improve. Hereafter, a large tonal shift disrupts the flow of this high-energy comedy, as Cassie begins a dark and ruthless quest to avenge her late sister; not only does this choice disrupt expectation, given that Irene is the title character, and the influence upon which all other actions act upon, but, for nearly half and hour, all comedic aspects are dropped completely in favor of an underdeveloped dramatic arc—the introduction of confusing subplots and the fleshing out of minor characters proved overwhelming at times when paired with the unrelenting darkness of Cassie’s quest.
However, upon the resolution of the drama, as Cassie confronts her sister’s killer, the musical again abruptly shifts the tone, returning to a happy-go-lucky comedy as if the guilt and self-hatred were bridge under the water. Granted, the shift is a welcome change of pace: (as Cassie’s confrontation with the vile Clancy is utter comedy gold) from this point forward, Iron Irene remains entertaining and fast-paced until its heart-warming conclusion.
An ambitious script by Liz Falstreau to say the least, this musical comedy possesses powerful ideas that elicit laughter and intrigue, but it loses sight of what makes the musical work: its slapstick, low-brow comedy, and the innocent (nearly moronic) optimism and determination that the characters demonstrate. The give and take between satirical humor and “poetic” dramatics leaves the plot lacking in specific development—the drama seems to exist at the expense of laughter, as the characters seem to exist inherently in heightened, caricature-eque states of feeling that are conducive to comedy, rather than drama; moreover, the nature of expository monologues and dialogues within the piece lack the nuance and subtlety necessary to be believable and candid. In short, the humor lands, and the drama does not.
Oddly enough, the catalyst for this obfuscation seems to be the presence of the titular character, who exists very heavily in the space of stone-cold drama. Were the musical to center on the myth and legacy of “Iron” Irene Wright—the fable, if you will—rather than the character herself, much of the confusing diversions from gut-busting comedy and endearingly flawed characters could be removed. Regardless of conjecture, Iron Irene’s book presents bold ideas and effective comedy—and ambition befitting a tall tale—but additional rewriting is needed to focus the plot and clean up the comedy.
Bringing the storied and chaotic world of this musical to life were standout performances from the gut-bustingly hilarious Marybeth Kram, (playing the thoughtlessly villainous Clancy) writer and producer Liz Falstreau (also starring as the spunky and optimistic Cassie DeLanie) and Tim Huggenberger as the dopily lovable and loyal Harland. These over-the-top characters evince the fantastical elements of folktales, maintaining an integrity to the drive, growth, and likability of storied heroes and villains; likewise, the larger-than-life characterizations draw out the comedy to be found in the mundanity of daily living, or in the outlandishly violent chaos of conflict.
Ashley Flanagan’s score leaves a bit a more to be desired. While certain numbers reflect the refreshing comedic energy within the book, for the most part, the score lacks the coherent and confident grandeur befitting of a “musical fable.” A dependence on exact rhyme schemes in the lyrics leads to a lack of scope and wit, which improves and highlights the ridiculous hilarity of the comedic numbers, but diminishes and detracts from the drama and mystique that the score attempts in more serious songs—the score has problem similar to the book’s with processing the dichotomy between drama and comedy. To remedy this, there must either be a heavier focus on the catchy and endearing comedic aspects of the score, (the innocent and lovely “Heartbeat Song” comes to mind) or heavy rewrites to better highlight potential poetics. However, the score warrants credit for its utilization of musical motifs—particularly in the finale, in which many familiar melodies are strung together to happily and hopefully greet the possibilities of a new tomorrow. There is much potential in this score to heighten and embolden the joy, reverie and excitement that make the plot and characters compelling, as it already does, to some extent; confident and focused musical redevelopment could raise the score up to the larger-than-life stature of the book’s ambition.
A high-energy, thoroughly entertaining musical comedy at its core, Iron Irene: A Musical Fable has the potential and ambition to forge a fantastical and outlandish folktale comedy, provided it refocuses on a clean, funny and compelling plot about a strong woman coming into her own in a time of chaos and inequality. Provided Iron Irene returns to the forge to craft some finer steel, this musical could become something to sing about.
The Election of William Henry Harrison (And His Subsequent Death)
Book and Lyrics: Preston Parker
Composers: Brad Kemp and Preston Parker
Director: Preston Parker
By Quinn Rigg
Our current political landscape is one of uncertainty and divisive turmoil—of picking sides, holding to selfish agendas and avoiding pressing matters at hand. Hateful rhetoric pervades the airways and, at times, the immorality of our government seems oppressive and inescapable.
It certainly seems as though America’s political structure is crumbling into chaos—as if the people of this country are forgotten in favor of selfish gain for the elite. As it turns out, this struggle is more familiar to America than some would care to admit. The Election of William Henry Harrison (And His Subsequent Death) aptly reflects the troubled politics of the present in the political landscape of yesteryear.
Written, directed, and composed by Preston Parker, (with additional composition contribution from Brad Kemp) this musical comedy follows the plot to elect a political outsider who is allegedly representative of the people. Sound familiar? While hilariously witty and cutting, this self-referential, on-the-nose comedy excellently implicates touching elements of humanizing honesty, heartwarming romance and compelling drama.
Despite the personal flaws and obvious ignorances within these historical figures brought to modern day, Parker’s writing endears these problematic characters by revealing big dreams and genuine human desires: to be included in a changing and challenging society; to have freedom and self-determination over one’s decisions; to be loved. In devious plotting for control and dominance, we also see desperate desires to be noticed and validated for pursuing an ideal of a better nation, as demonstrated in a candid moment from Henry Clay (also played by Parker) in the spotlight, wherein “The Great Compromiser” laments on why America can’t seem to “compromise on him.” Despite being inept and headstrong, the titular William Henry Harrison (portrayed aptly and confidently by Graham Henderson) shows beautiful love and compassion in his love letters to his wife Anna. While being characterized as a pompous, anxious and childish sitting duck, Martin Van Buren (played by the hilarious and versatile Bianca Shaw) is surprisingly relatable in his (her) dreams of acceptance and validation, as well as the simple need for a break.
The Brechtian elements of this musical are especially effective, providing additional relevance, as the intimacy between audience and performer is used to directly challenge assumptions on the chaotic nature of today’s social and political hierarchy, reminding the audience that history is, in fact, repeating itself, and power-hungry shadows have sought, and continue to seek, control over all aspects of the law and economy.
Addressing these issues in such a transparent, nearly confrontational manner serves as a catalyst for audience discussion and debate, fostering a dialogue between audience and musical—and between the audience and itself—about how to change an unfair system and whether we are currently moving toward the best, most effective solution as a society. The truth and purpose of this musical are ever-present as themes of control, independence and the impossibility of absolute power cohesively connect and develop the plot. The audience is included and galvanized to challenge the power structure of their country.
The Election of William Henry Harrison’s score is intensely creative and inventive, with a wide variety of styles and articulations to increase intrigue, entertainment and replay value. From rousing campaign ditties to sweet love songs, dark and sinister declarations of control and a rapping Martin Van Buren, this musical has something for everybody. The lyrics cleverly enhance character development and drive the plot forward; however, in their quest for wit and ingenuity, the lyrics occasionally become more monologue than song, making a song less accessible and listener-friendly; that is to say, sometimes less is more, and simpler rhythms and rhyme schemes could be utilized for the sake of simplification and musical concision.
That being said, Parker and Kemp establish effective musical motifs that hold the largely varied score together with solid, precise and unflinching cohesion—musical motifs that are mirrored and enhanced through movement, on account of sharp and aesthetically pleasing ensemble choreography from Lauren Serra. The symbiosis between book, score and choreography creates powerful throughlines and assists the developments of character arcs.
The ending’s reprise of the musical’s beginning is a particularly effective and chilling example of thematic development, in that it reminds the audience of the futility of humanizing struggles—all the world is merely a struggle for power and control.
Such a socially conscious and politically researched musical could not have been produced without a stellar cast portraying larger-than-life characters, touching intimacies and pensive realizations. Particularly polished and engaging performances from Garrett Allain as the befuddled and kooky John Tyler, Tom Ebenhoeh as the selfish and tactless John Calhoun, as well as the aforementioned Parker, Henderson and Shaw.
The Election of William Henry Harrison (And His Subsequent Death) is a work crafted out of passion, meticulous detail, polish and smart research, creating a musical that is relevant, funny and frankly, vital to delineating and commenting on the ubiquitous and abundant political strife that surrounds us; moreover, it provides a social catharsis, utilizing the political tensions of the past to help us laugh at the present. Here’s to “Tippecanoe and Tyler too!”
Choice: The Musical!
Writers: Sheri and Josh Flanders, Kimber Russell, Kerry Santoro
Composer: Brad Kemp
Director: Jeff Bouthiette
By Quinn Rigg
In a world frightened and confused over the self-determination of women’s bodies and sexuality, it’s easy to feel enraged—to point fingers at others for ignorance and ethical hypocrisy.
Enter Choice: The Musical to make light-hearted fun of divisive and controversial topics in today’s society: abortion, marriage, religion, sex—no issue is safe from confrontation and challenge. With zany caricatures, sarcastic pandering and a talking cowboy fetus puppet, Choice is a creative, off-the-wall musical comedy that provides consistent, energetic humor as well as on-the-nose social commentary
Written by Sheri and Josh Flanders, Kimber Russell, and Kerry Santoro, the plot follows the innocent, naïve, yet hopeful Ellie (played by Amber Linde) and her journey to maturity and empowerment through revelations on sexual liberty, and the oppressive fallacies of patriarchy. The story is told through brief narrative expositions and commentaries from Fetus…the mustachioed, ten-gallon-hat-wearing talking fetus…. (voiced and puppeteered by Josh Flanders). This musical is a wild ride.
The pandering, Sesame Street-esque tone of the musical lends itself well to the heightened intensity and immaturity of the characters— everything is relatively easy to follow and understand, particularly the humor. Moreover, the stereotypically-written characters are consistent, as they don’t act outside of the facade of their character —the humor is tight and energetic, and the characters are ridiculous and easy to laugh at. However, what the writing gains in humor through the employment of stereotypes and caricatures, it loses in relatability and complexity; the writing is rather black and white, as are the characters’ conflicts. Despite a lack of complexity, the consistency and energetic clarity of this musical is extremely entertaining.
While not complex or overtly serious, Choice does have some morally compelling arguments, such as its subversion of the traditional “one side is good, and the other is bad.” Both the conservative preacher and the liberal women who run the Planned Parenthood center each have their own merits and issues: the preacher is, well, a conservative evangelist, yet he means the best for his wife and daughter; the Planned Parenthood folks go a little too far in preaching sexual liberty and in reacting to backlash, yet they provide vital education on women’s bodies and women’s health. Ellie’s character, hopeful and malleable, serves as the middle ground between the attributes and atrocities of both sides, concluding that “whatever the choice, it’s my choice.” In short, Choice presents a very relevant and valid message under the guise of a ridiculous comedy.
Brad Kemp’s score is well-composed and compelling, greatly supporting the plot comically and thematically. The lyrics lend themselves to the humor of the musical, while meaningfully conveying character motivations. Funny lyrics coupled with meaningful messages create rousing anthems such as “Freedom to Fuck,” wherein condoms are lovingly thrown into the audience.
Direction by Jeff Bouthiette further solidifies the ridiculous antics that pervade Choice, given that the movement of bodies around the stage is clean, concise, and motivated by humor. The blocking paints aesthetically-pleasing pictures that are compelling to look at—nobody is blocked by someone else, the motivations and reactions of characters are clear, and the engagement of audience members in the action is riotously funny.
Choice: The Musical delivers unbridled fun and ridiculous humor well-worth watching with friends. The socially conscious message underneath the caricatures and guttural humor provides relevance and truth to the comedy, while still maintaining a comfortable air of silliness and hilarity. Choice presents a bipartisan look at social and ethical stratifications today while providing concrete and empowering insight on what it means to grow up and what it means to embrace femininity in the face of patriarchal dominance.
Feathers! A Superhero Musical
Book and Lyrics: Neil Figuracion
Music: Gail Gallagher
Director: Jessica Landis
By Ian Rigg
“Creepin’ Crustaceans, Night Mask!”
Feathers is a comic book tale through and through, in that it gets off to a strong, stylistic start before going off the rails.
A playful pastiche of superhero stereotypes, Feathers is the coming-of-age tale of a young sidekick trying to break out of her masked mentor’s shadow, in the delightfully kitschy vein of the 1960s Batman TV show. There are many moments of unbridled hilarity, and stage pictures worthy of any splash page, but its potential goes haywire toward the end.
Neil Figuracion’s writing comes replete with stereotypes to spoof: the trademark alliterative names, sardonic butler, and scenery chewing are all there, and composer Gail Gallagher has devised some fun tunes to match. Choreographer J. Lindsay Brown adds kinetic karate chops and floor dives for good measure.
Jessica Landis’ direction really puts the “comic” in “comical”: it’s as clever as it is chuckle-inducing. A crime scene is treated as a tango, beating up a suspect for information becomes a 50s beach boogie called the Shakedown, the rhyming narrator is kidnapped from the booth at the back of the house, and an audience member holds up a cardboard cutout to block out the spotlight, a la the Bat Signal.
The first act is an enjoyable romp, garnering many a guffaw, but at the turn of the show, the comic tone (and the plot itself) is blown up alongside one of our heroes. A confusing mix of musings on grief, and bits of dialogue that don’t live up to the show’s previous heights (the villain’s son telling his dying father to “rest in eternal shenar-nar” stands out as inscrutable). The intent is there, but the execution doesn’t quite follow. This comic book romp could stand for some rewrites.
While amusingly performed, the characters of fellow teen heroes (well, sort of?) Rosalie and Henry Toy, as well as their teacher Ms. Weaver, either need to be more fully developed and better integrated into the main plot, or should be eliminated for the sake of concision and focusing on our primary protagonists.
Yet the second act certainly isn’t devoid of good. The final number declares that “the world isn’t simple” but implores us to “just try to make the world okay”. Sacrificing high-faluting superheroics for a more pragmatic moral is an interesting subversion of the spoof the musical was going for, and the song itself is a feel-good jam if ever there was one: it just needs clearer cut development beforehand to justify this departure of a conclusion.
Feathers has several charming performances worth commending. Jacqueline Fenton brings great commitment and physicality to the title role, giving the plucky Magnificent Magpie a real earnesty, and a killer somersault to boot.
Channeling the hokey charm of the late great Adam West, Mike Parrish plays the billionaire costumed vigilante Night Mask (orphaned in Murder Alley) with aplomb. A character quips that “his superpower is white male privilege”, and he carries the bravado and deliciously deliberate overacting to prove it.
James Freetly plays the brooding “mysterious new kid Johnny Cog” to a T, and Commissioner Gordon stand-in Chris Terry does very well as Detective Little (of particular note is a sensitive and superb duet with Night Mask on the roof, about caring for their “little girl”)
Feathers is a fun, if befuddling, romp, full of equal parts campy goodness and confusing inscrutability. With a completely redrawn part II, it will fly fully fledged into the open arms of comic fans and musical theatre lovers alike. Excelsior, Feathers!
The Trouble With Dead Boyfriends
Book and Lyrics: Annie Pulsipher
Composer and Lyrics: Alex Petti
Director: Stephen Eckert
By Ian Rigg
An irreverent romp through teen romance tropes, The Trouble With Dead Boyfriends reads between the lines to reveal the monsters lurking within. It’s an indictment of romanticization, revealing the different brands of patriarchal abuse that we too often mistake for love.
The brilliant brainchild of writer Annie Pulsipher serves as both satire and sermon, celebrating the friendship of friends Stella, Grace and Madison, and skewering the sorry excuse for young men (well, technically not-so-young men) they’re dating. These jamokes have a few things in common. They’re all suave and handsome on the surface, they’re all problematic, and they’re all…well, dead. The musical cleverly plays off of popular supernatural YA novels, and illuminates their incredibly negative role models. For the dead boyfriends may be a vampire, a ghost and a zombie, but that’s not what makes them monsters.
Pulsipher has deftly woven a tight web of raucous one-liners, clever and emotional lyrics, and keen insight. Her partner, composer and co-lyricist Alex Petti, has created a driving pop-punk score, with shades of 50s malt shop bops sprinkled on top for good measure. Blasted away by the phenomenal pit and smashing singers, audiences will leave humming the choruses, and one hopes they’ll be humming them for years to come as this killer show takes off.
Under the deft direction of Stephen M. Eckert, the show remains raw and intense while also polished, poised and side-splittingly hilarious. Helena Hewitt is an ingenious tech director, making a lot out of a little with a projection screen, clever lighting and smartly used electric appliances like a fan and a flowing punch fountain. Alexis Chaney’s costumes really fit the characters and contain ingeniously hidden squibs. Because with powerful performances matching the meticulous crafting of its behind-the-scenes wizards, this musical is bloody good fun.
Amanda Ripley shines in her multiple roles as a perky-on-the-surface student council member, a stern librarian and a flirtatiously “cool” mom.
The boyfriends are exemplary performers, because they remain eminently watchable while making their characters utterly odious. Each of them embodies a different aspect of physical and psychological abuse.
As Lucian, Javier Spivey is stellar. A scenery-chewing vampire bleeding charisma, Lucian is an undead lover with little regard for Stella as anything other than physical pleasure. He even calls her by the wrong name. He whispers sweet nothings, and is all-around coercive as he tries to tempt her to let him “turn her.” He’s what many on the internet would dub a “fuckboy”: a nefarious lothario who will say anything to get in someone’s pants, but is repulsed by menstruation (being a vampire, the cast plays that for a hilarious bit). He gets a lot of laughs, but he’s the kind of guy who deserves to be buried at a crossroads, covered in garlic with a stake through his heart.
Scott Cuva plays Grace’s boyfriend Silence, a dreamy ghost from the Puritan era who is actually a nightmare. He is the mansplainer, the narcissist, the creep who sneaks up on someone until it’s too late. He believes he’s #woke and claims to be in love with her on an intellectual level, but couldn’t care less what she actually thinks or wants. He is controlling, manipulative, and (quite literally) possessive, taking over Grace’s body to her protest. Having spent the centuries yearning to dance, he foists his desires for prom upon her, and doesn’t even want her to go away to college. Audiences will yearn to exorcise this prick.
Jimmy Brewer plays Zachary, the dreamboat football star in the throes of teenage infatuation with Madison. He doesn’t begin the show as a supernatural being, but already shows shades of the monster within. He is emblematic of the problems of co-dependence, an ardent but dangerous affection that’s totally toxic. The show spoofs The Notebook, but he promptly falls off the ferris wheel to his death. Because she’s caught in a bad romance, Madison performs a ritual to bring him back from the grave, only for him to return as a zombie. Brewer fully commits to the physical transformation, every nuance of a shambling, lurching corpse. It would be a shame that his lovely voice is obligated to sing as a zombie, were it not utterly hilarious. And yet, this relationship is the most tragic, as this relationship turned toxic also stands as a metaphor for physical violence. “I know you never meant to hurt me!” The musical makes no attempt to condone it.
But this story isn’t about the boys. It’s about the powerful young women casting off the manipulations of their oppressive significant others. And they are incredible.
Chantelle Guido (who also choreographed the show, and quite well) plays the bookish Grace, who with a carefully crafted performance, immaculate voice and superb command of movement, is a joy to watch as she shakes off the control of her (literally) possessive boyfriend. She chooses her education, she chooses life and she chooses herself.
Megan Forster is marvelous as Madison. With a passion and pep in every step, she also pulls heart strings with the tragedy of her performance, because she really believes she needs Zachary (Spoiler alert: she doesn’t). Audiences will really give her a hand.
And as Stella, Marina Devaux rocks the audience’s socks off. With a perfect deadpan delivery and sardonic air, the charismatic Devaux is also a vocal powerhouse. Playing a misunderstood young woman with a penchant for Stephanie Meyer, it’s a pleasure to watch her realize that the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks is just bad.
These three phenomenal actresses have real futures ahead of them, and so does The Trouble With Dead Boyfriends. And well it should: it would be an incredibly entertaining, and terribly important addition to the musical theatre canon…and a cackle-inducing, cautionary tale to us all.
About MCL Chicago
MCL Chicago, formerly known as Studio BE, NFP, creates and fosters exceptional live music comedy. MCL Chicago expands the power of comedy, of theatre, and of the Chicago community at large through music, performance, workshops and community outreach. Operating since 2009, MCL Chicago, situated in the heart of Lakeview’s Belmont Theatre District, is a venue for comedians, performers and improvisers of all trades, offering a variety of self-produced work and that of visiting companies. More information is here.