By Patrick O’Brien
Chicago gets shellacked by ice and freezing cold, but at Underscore Theatre, the show goes on. Shows, plural, actually. Chicago’s harbor to original musicals is back in business with a modest little milestone — a fifth annual festival of new works from across the nation. So expanded, in fact, that it’ll take two spaces in Edgewater to hold all eleven events (nine full productions, two readings).
To kick things off, they hosted a preview event, featuring songs and snippets from the nine staged productions that are on the bill. (There will be staged readings for the two other pieces; no comments on them here.) Accordingly, these are not full reviews, but first impressions of the writing on display and from what information was provided about each piece, in the hopes of directing readers appropriately. (The performances were uniformly excellent.) Also, because opinions, the tone here is somewhat more informal. Any errors deriving from a faulty first impression are mine to own.
Pieces marked Broadway will be performed at 5451 N. Broadway; Off-Broadway, 1133 W. Catalpa Ave.
AN ARTIST AND THE EMBER: A SELF-LOVE STORY (Broadway)
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Evan Cullinan
The synopsis — a twentysomething composer grappling with her inner anxieties to create something Beautiful. Basic, but, in the right hands, can be something special, which might just be the case here. Past an initial barrage of snark, Cullinan displays a knack for ravishing romantic melody as Eve, the composer protagonist, shuts out her demons and simply meditates on what she wrote, not thinking about if it’s been done before or any one of those writerly curses. A good fit for writers (duh) and anyone who’s a sucker for long legato soprano lines.
BROOKE ASTOR’S LAST AFFAIR (Broadway)
Book and Lyrics by Rachael Migler
Music by Eric Grunin
Musicals about larger-than-life historical figures can be dicey. On one hand, you have, well, a larger-than-life historical figure, and they rarely come larger than Brooke Astor, the legendary socialite and philanthropist who married well but fought even better, against her own son, even. On the other hand, you can take that larger-than-life character — and every other historical personage around her — and reduce everything down to a pageant of their most famous quotes, if even that. This piece, however, has made the rounds in other festivals, and Migler and Grunin can turn out a tune that’s jazzy, and arch, so they’re doing something right.
Book, Music, and Lyrics by J. Linn Allen
Somewhat similar ground to ARTIST AND THE EMBER — one person battling their personified demons — but there’s no comparison to the Big C. Also like EMBER, sardonicism (“Hello cancer, goodbye world”) gives way to an outpouring of feeling. When that outpouring comes courtesy of Sarah Hayes, one of our finest singing actresses playing the dying man’s estranged granddaughter, you pay attention.
THE INCREDIBLE SIX THOUSAND-FOOT LADDER TO HEAVEN: A New Musical Fairy Tale (Off-Broadway)
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Ryan Martin
The title says it all: A young girl, still grieving her father’s passing, builds a ladder to heaven to visit him. Now go see it: Martin writes intelligently for children characters without getting twee, and his music is as driving as a far-fetched fairy tale mission needs it to be.
LUCKY: A MUSICAL (Off-Broadway)
Book and Lyrics by Sarah Frasco
Music by Gabriella Hirsch
Another take on “students on the verge of great change,” LUCKY concerns a young woman who comes into her own upon entering college, who holds tight to her prized copy of The Care and Keeping of You, the seminal guide to puberty for young women, which is a gift from her absentee mother. It’s got spirit, it’s got vim, it’s got a nice pop beat to it. It might make a good companion piece with UNISON.
MOONSHINER: A MUSICAL FABULISM (Off-Broadway)
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Barton Kuebler
When writing a musical, it helps if can draw a bead on what you want to accomplish. This becomes trickier the more layers you throw on. Kuebler, writer of MOONSHINER — a supernaturally tinged film noir pastiche/parody with such characters as Nicodemus Silver — knows exactly what he’s doing, nailing both the breathless melodrama of late-aughts supernatural romances and the dime-store poetry of the hard-boiled private dick.
MY DEAR WATSON (Off-Broadway)
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Jamie-Leigh Bartschi
Sherlock Holmes has brains, but he’s never really had pipes, nor has he suffered for his lack of singing. Not to mention: how does one surprise an audience with characters everyone knows from a century of other depictions? In some ways, this piece is exactly what one would expect — the tunes are fleet and pattery, chock full of clever rhymes. On the other hand, directing Holmes as someone with an unintended disregard for Watson’s personal space whilst cracking a three-pipe problem might be enough to get him out of his shell enough to sing while still feeling faithful to his more reserved antecedents.
OH HI, JOHNNY: The Room-sical Parody (Broadway)
Music and Lyrics by Alex Syiek
Book and Additional Lyrics by Bryan Jager
Unauthorized musical parodies may have a short shelf life, but THE ROOM, the so-bad-it’s-good failed melodrama-cum-cult classic that this musical is based on, is always ripe for the pickin.’ The film is a bit of a cinematic mystery spot, where nothing works like it should, so it might be best to watch it beforehand if you’re unfamiliar. The oddball material is funny, for sure, but it might take some extra explaining to non-Roomies as to why a simple flower shop with a dog on the counter has everyone else in stitches.
(Full disclosure: Ian Rigg, playing THE ROOM’s star/director/writer/producer Tommy Wiseau, is a contributor to this site and a personal friend.)
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Adina Kruskal
Additional Music by Elyse Anderson
The final countdown to the end of the school year is on, and teens will be a prime audience for this piece. Seniors, because they themselves are surviving the crunch of college applications and post-high school plans like those on stage; and everyone below them, so they can gaze into their futures. Reassuring and empathetic material, with a decidedly unempathetic Administrator sort of character — one who doles out unending essay prompts about life challenges and other clichDés — that might make her the one to love to hate.
The festival hosts performances each week till February 24: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 8 pm; Fridays at 7 and 10 pm; Saturdays at 3 and 7:30 pm; and Sundays at 3 and 6 pm. There will be additional performances on Monday, February 11, at 8 pm and Sunday, February 24, at 12 pm. Please visit cmtf.org for a full schedule and tickets. Photos by Evan Hanover.