By Quinn Rigg
Chicago’s theatrical history is a scrappy one: from community shows at Hull House in the late 19th century, to the beginnings of the storefront theater movement in the mid 20th century, Chicago has a staunch reputation for providing access to the performing arts by any and all means necessary. Underscore Theatre — the city’s home for the development of new musical theatrical work — continues Chicago’s grassroots theatrical tradition through the continuation of the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival, running for its sixth consecutive year. The Festival presents a tantalizing docket of eight new musicals written by sixteen individual contributors — not including two staged readings!
The February 3 press-preview saw a snippet of each of the festival’s full-length productions, whetting the palate for the plays to be performed in the following weeks; ergo, this is less an overall comprehensive review of each show and more a pocket guide of first impressions and general recommendations.
Wonder Women: The Musical, written by Gregory Becker, presents a stylized (and stylish) look into the creation of the nation’s favorite superhero matriarch: a true story unexpectedly filled with social and sexual action and advocacy. Though not a family show, Wonder Women bursts with heart and class in its explorations of identity and sexuality. Sensual and snappy choreography by Kayla Boye craftilly navigates a talented ensemble through “Kink,” a clever number about the joys of sexual liberation. This is the musical for the social activist, lover of history, or the fun-loving hellraiser in your neighborhood.
Olivia Popp’s Double Vision explores connection through space-time with a pulsing pop-sci-fi score. When a student of astrophysics opens a wormhole to other dimensions, possibilities both emotional and scientific set the world alight. Double Vision is a surefire hit for fans of pulpy science fiction and vocal pyrotechnics.
A stand out of the night, Baked! The Musical is written by Jordan Liu and Keepak Kumar, featuring an all-star cast of Asian American actors. Baked! follows Jane Huang, a compulsively overachieving high school student, and her quest to afford her dream school by becoming a kingpin of a high schooler drug syndicate. Rife with laughter and crackling with charisma, this musical burns with fiery grooves and tuneful melodies. Sleek, charming, and razor-sharp, this raucous journey of family and friendship from a far-underrepresented perspective, Baked! is certain to win the ears and hearts of any and all audiences.
Moby Dick — a Musical, with book and lyrics by Ed Brian and music by William Berry, is an ambitious musical tragedy based on the classic tale. A cast twenty-one-members-strong — comparatively humongous for Chicago’s storefront scene — sings a sweeping score that is bold, brash, and as epic in scope as a great whale. What musical lacks in tuneful accessibility, it makes up for with daunting ambiance and spell-binding intensity — for those who find Les Misérables to be too light-hearted.
With music and lyrics by Matt Day and book by Kelsey Nighthawk, Paper Swords sees a light-hearted band of merry LARP enthusiasts as they vie for control of their “kingdom” after their king retires. The juxtaposition between wanting ballads and rascally showtunes sufficiently sums up the dichotomous nature of a youthful mind coming to terms with the world at large. This teenage romantic comedy is a coming-of-age story perfectly-suited for those who grew up with grass-stained knees after summer afternoons spent at the playground.
Billy and the Potato Powered Time Machine boasts a robust creative team, with Lawrence Adelson and Keith Gatchel writing book and lyrics, and music written by Nicholas Davio and Chauncy Alexander Davis-Mauney. The story follows a young Billy and his sister Jamie coping with the recent divorce of their parents. Finding the titular time machine (powered by potatoes) in their grandmother’s basement, they are sent on a fantastical adventure with unpredictable consequences. The upbeat rock score is spunky and bursting with character; this family-friendly musical beckons those who’ve spent bygone youthful weekends enjoying Saturday morning cartoons.
Verve, with book and lyrics by Fran Zell and music by Karena Mendoza, is a musical subsisting on a diet of friendship with a side of social commentary. Verve follows five women at the gym, working through their internalized insecurities about their bodies and their relationships. Musically stylized in the vein of the traditional musical comedy, Verve tunefully presents an honest look in the mirror to characters and audiences alike. This musical is recommended to those in search of self-improvement and affirmation, and to those who shop at Whole Foods.
Adira — book and lyrics by Brittany Handler and music by John Love — is a musical satire riffing off of traditional damsel-in-distress fairy tales. The hokey, tongue-and-cheek comedy is highly presentational and intentionally saccharine, hyperbolizing the tropes and archetypes of the genre. Though the characters are big, the complexity of the story appears minimal: it’s a simple book and score for a simple satire, all for a simply good time. Adira is recommended for fans of SNL and musical parodies.
The Chicago Musical Theatre Festival opens its mainstage acts (and two staged readings) at the Edge Theater’s Broadway and Off-Broadway spaces, each guaranteed five performances until the festival’s closing February 23rd. This time of year is a reminder to theatregoers the inherent value of facilitating new work. As Chicago’s theatrical community evolves and matures, it is incumbent upon patrons and artists to support the invention and undaunted discovery that Chicago is known for. The Festival is one such event that tills the artistic soil of Chicago’s artistic landscape, creating a nurturing and fertile environment for new material to be cultivated. The city welcomes newcomers and respected locals to the event each year: writers, actors, and theatregoers from varying walks of life enjoy the welcoming climate of this tradition.
Underscore Theatre Company presents the sixth annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival at the Edge Theater’s Broadway (5451 N. Broadway) and Off Broadway (1133 W. Catalpa Ave.) spaces through February 23rd. Staged readings held in The Edge Off Broadway on Monday, February 10th, and Monday, February 17th. More information and tickets may be found here.