By Colin Douglas
A young medical student named Lucas, who just lost his dad, opens the musical play My Name is Annie King singing a reflective, “What You Became.” Through this song he vents his anger at a father who demanded the world from his son. Even though Lucas has inherited the family’s money and property, he’s decided to leave his medical training and run away from everything…except himself. Lucas buries his misery and confusion in a stupor of drugs and drink. While inebriated, the young man recklessly drives his pickup truck onto a lonely, country road in an effort to escape the place he calls home. Suddenly a figure darts out in front of him and, upon striking the man, Lucas finds his life changed forever.
The injured man’s name is Cash. As Lucas is cradling the man’s broken body, Rosalie appears out of the foggy darkness. She’s related to Cash somehow, perhaps his teenage daughter. Lucas persuades Rosalie to not tell anyone that he’s the negligent driver who struck Cash, but just to forgive and trust him and accept that he’s a doctor. Lucas sets out to make amends by healing the man, but what he discovers about Cash and his family is more than the boy can ever cure.
Cash, his wife Hannah and the five other young women living with him in the log cabin in the woods are all part of a strange religious cult. Although Lucas fights it, he’s eventually seduced into becoming a part of the group by the larger-than-life leader. At the same time, behind Cash’s back, Lucas finds himself becoming romantically attracted to the pretty, innocent young Rosalie, and she to him. By the end of this mysterious and intoxicating play, every character’s life will be altered by Lucas’ presence and none of these folks will be the same.
At New York City’s Pace University Krista Pioppi was challenged in her BFA Musical Theatre Program to write the book for an original show. She paired up with classmates Aaron Albert and Katy Rea, who composed the music and lyrics for this bluegrass-inspired score. The tiny musical received readings and concert presentations at noted venues like Joe’s Pub, 54 Below and New World Stages, but Underscore Theatre offers the show’s first fully-produced production.
Dynamically directed by Alex Higgin-Houser, himself a Chicago librettist, this impressive little work is really a folk drama with music. The show’s score colors this story with a definite homey, southern bluegrass flavor. Although it features 16 different tunes, many of them solo pieces, it’s the ensemble numbers that are the most moving. Sung with gorgeous harmonic blending, guided by co-musical directors Royen Kent and Meagan Picchchi, they are the true strength of this show. Although some of the actors accompany themselves, a talented five-member band, hidden high within the walls of Eric Luchen’s rustic scenic design, provide the melodic background. Erik S. Barry’s terrific lighting design places focus where it’s needed and helps set the tone for this mysterious musical drama.
Pioppi’s musical is strictly fiction, but her plot is roughly based upon facts. She uncovered a number of news stories telling about rural religious sects that exist all over America, particularly in small, backwoods enclaves, like the rural Missouri setting of the play. Pioppi’s book is also influenced by additional information she learned about members of Scientology and the Mormon religion, many of whom are secretly polygamous.
The cast is led by boyishly handsome actor/singer Royen Kent as Lucas. He plays a conflicted young man who accidentally wanders into a secret society he never realized existed. Gradually his problems and concerns seem unimportant when he finds himself attracted to a lovely, innocent teenager named Rosalie. She’s beautifully portrayed by lovely Paige Daigle, a relative newcomer to Chicago’s musical theatre scene. Together these two actors provide the heart of this story.
Their performances are supported by another newcomer to Chicago, Jeff Mills. He plays Cash with a combination of force, brutal strength and gentle, beguiling charisma. He’s paired with actress Meaghan Looney as his wife, Hannah. This striking young woman, who makes a welcome return to musical theatre, is almost pure, unbridled emotion. Hannah’s conflicted devotion to both Cash and Rosalie, and the story behind the formation of their family, is mostly in this gifted actress’ hands. Four more talented ensemble play the other members of Cash’s family. They include lovely Demi Zaino, as the provocative and seductive Emma; Britain Gebhardt, portraying a sweetly maternal and very pregnant Mav; Foline Roos, who plays another lovely, innocent young cult member, named Ellenore; and Amanda Giles, as Clemmie, the young girl looking for a way to shed her own tragic past and abandoned love.
So into the woods we go with this ensemble of talented actors, never to return quite the same. This is a terrific, sensitively moving piece of theatre. It’s a far more dramatic and poignant story than Underscore’s previous offerings and it will linger in theatergoer’s mind long after the musical’s final moments. There’s a certain earthy resonance in the simplicity of style that Higgin-Houser and his team have chosen for his production, and the show will hold audiences in the palm of its hand until the final notes of the guitar.
Underscore Theatre Company presents “My Name is Annie King” through May 28 at the Pride Arts Center, The Broadway, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Additional reviews by Colin Douglas are found at theatreinchicago.com.