Your Guide to the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival
When someone says "musical", it doesn't take long for me to respond, "I'm in." My love for musical theatre existed before I was even out of the womb. It's the origin of my namesake, my grandmother passed down her favorites to me, and my mother always said thanks to the dancer legs that I inherited from her I could be a Rockette (sorry to disappoint Mom).
Which is why when I heard of the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival, I could not have been more on board. I became familiar with Underscore Theatre Company with their original musical, Haymarket, which dealt with the events of the Haymarket Affair that shaped Chicago and the history of labor unions. Seeing an original musical in Chicago is rare, and I was impressed by this effort. I had high hopes when I attended a preview of the selections for the 5th annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival.
In case you aren't familiar, the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival encourages the development and production of new musicals which this year is nine (!) The festival will also feature two free readings of musicals in their beginning stages. All the festivities take place at The Edge in two performance spaces from February 4-24. It's a month long celebration for musical lovers and those wanting to tip their toe into what musical theatre can be. Being a part of a new production process can be exhilarating and gives you eternal bragging rights if you see it first.
Let's see what's on the line-up, shall we?
Book, Music and Lyrics by Jami-Leigh Bartschi
Starring: Taylor Adams, Sam Baum, Hannah Green, Alex Iacobucci, Michelle McKenzie-Voigt, Sean Rhead, Travis Shanahan and Brittany Stock
As the title suggests, here we have Sherlock Holmes and his good, old sidekick, Watson. You know'em, you love them? Or you at least have strong opinions on Benedict Cumberbatch. The two excerpts which opened the evening were "Man or Machine" and "It's Like a Game" which demonstrate a quick witted snippet of what's in store for Sherlock and his Holmie as they face his nemesis, Dr. Moriarty. Watson (Travis Shanahan) comes off as lovable and loyal against a humorous performance from Hannah Green in her plausible questioning of Holmes' capacity for emotion. The second number shows Holmes and Watson's dynamic which is as tight as you can imagine, mentor with mentee. The score seems fun for a premise I didn't initially gravitate toward.
Music and Lyrics by Alex Syiek
Book and Additional Lyrics by Bryan Jager
Starring Connar Brown, Anthony Logan Cole, Micah Hilson, Cynthia Hindmon, Kyle Masteller, Jarrett Poore, Sissy Anne Quaranta, Natalie Rae, Ian Rigg, Dylan Todd and Coleen Tutton
Coming off a run in Orlando and billed by its creative team as "Noises Off meets A Very Potter Musical", this show has an innate audience. Known as possibly the worst movie ever made, The Room has a cult following similar to that of Rocky Horror (which both have consistent viewings at Music Box Theatre). Because of the film's immense popularity to this day, it will appeal to those who adore the film. My question lies in terms of adaptation from screen to stage in how it will follow in the steps of Chicago premieres. Will it abide by Wiseau's text as a nearly faithful adaptation like Pretty Woman or recognize an opportunity to elevate its dated aspects, particularly in innovating its female characters like Tootsie? Throw in parody and anything's on the table. Cynthia Hindmon's charming performance as the lovelorn flower shop owner (hello, doggie!) gave me hope that there may be more here than meets the eye.
Book, Music and Lyrics by J. Linn Allen
Starring Ana Maria Alvarez, Emi Lee Frantz, Sarah Hayes, Bill Kavanagh, John B. Leen, Shaina Summerville and Timothy Sullivan
Now for something completely different, Cancerman deals with a cancer patient who in light of his diagnosis tries to reconcile with his estranged family. "Cancerland" introduces us to a "sardonic trio", as its creator prefaces, who articulate the feelings of doubt, grief, and anger that naturally arise with receiving such news. I was particularly taken with the score for its strong, dissonant harmonies and an equally harmonious ensemble. "This Could be the Time" gives a glimpse into the titular character's daughter as she offers her mixed feelings over dreamlike vocals. A compelling score highlights a particular strength that could propel a powerful story.
Book, Music and Lyrics by Adina Kruskal
Additional Music by Elyse Anderson
Starring Kevin Blair, Rob Chesler, Allison Grischow, Kayla Higbee, Chelsea Milligan, Austin Nelson Jr., Jenna Rapisarda and Allie Wessel
Enduring high school is rough, especially when senior year hits. The feeling of being ready to take on the world and having no idea how to do so is exhilarating yet terrifying. It tends to feel more terrifying when you're going through it and haven't made it out to the other side. In the spiral that is college applications, Unison centers on a wind ensemble trying to get in tune with their futures and one another. With an uplifting, pop score, this show captures the epitome of teen angst among a predominantly female ensemble. Despite an upbeat number, it demonstrated a frustration of the pressures involved that makes the process of leaving high school and out into the world seem ridiculous, even impossible.
Book by Sarah Frasco
Music by Gabriella Hirsch
Lyrics by Sarah Frasco and Gabriella Hirsch
Starring Brittney Brown, Elisabeth Del Toro, Shelby Marie Edwards, Gary Fields, Sarah Frasco, Gabriella Hirsch, Katie Hunter, Madeline Lauzon, George Ochoa, Ricci Prioletti, Shanna Sweeney, Allison Taylor and Brendan Tran Band: Noah Appelbaum, Joshua Draper, Jordan Harris and Becca Shertok
If Unison encompasses the panic of high school, Lucky proves those feelings don't disappear when you go to college. But it helps if you have a guide, which in Lucky's case is her cherished copy of The Care and Keeping of You. I know I'm not the only one who was given this book by their mother which was like the bible on puberty. Having not thought of this book since then, it's surprisingly clever to apply this beloved book to a later time when women are continuing to learn about their bodies in different ways. There's laugh out loud lines abound here and an adorable meet cute where Lucky meets her college roommate, Hazel, in "Friendship Crush". It's a song that'll remind you of ones you listened to on your boombox when writing in your secret diary. Lucky: A Musical seems to promise a heartwarming, humorous recollection of college life and that growing pains aren't limited to adolescence.
Book, Music and Lyrics by Evan Cullinan
Starring Cody Dericks, Sophia Foldvari, Kayla Kennedy, Kati Kostyk, Quinn Rattan, Maddie Sachs, Garrett Sayers, Kelsey Skomer, Ryan Smetana, Taylor Snooks and Zach Tabor
A bit meta, dramatic, and perhaps too close to home comes An Artist and the Ember. The artistic process is never quite as pretty as it seems. It's often messy, stressful, and altogether self-destructing (not unlike high school or college, us artists just choose to continue suffering). And it certainly doesn't help when you have to deal with the most frustrating, unproductive, irritating person who will not get out of your way: yourself. Eve is immediately relatable to anyone who has ever embarked on a creative project. "Ideas: Part I" shows her workshopping ideas for a musical with the manifestation of her anxiety, Ember, constantly hovering over her shoulder. She finally makes a breakthrough in "Fantasies" and rediscovers her love for a story she once started, but abandoned. It's a perfect "I want" song for a protagonist and encapsulates a beautiful moment of a creator amused and inspired by her creations, and herself.
Book, Music and Lyrics by Barton Kuebler
Starring Austin Book, Brade Bradshaw, Trevor Earley, Annie Nelson and Gordon Stanley
Picture it: Chicago, October 1952. The interior office of Nic Silver, a private investigator who's seen it all or so he thinks. Enter Selene Orb who worries her husband harbors a terrible secret and offers Silver a proposition he can't refuse. Read all of this again your most melodramatic tone and you'll be in the right mood for Moonshiner, a riff on the film noir genre with teases from the creative team of some surprise supernatural elements as well. While these details were kept secret from this prologue, Austin Book and Annie Nelson's rapport leaves you wanting more. They abide by the rules of this performance of masculinity and femininity leaning into gestures and lines just enough to provoke laughter. As mysterious as the chance of their meeting, Moonshiner has some tricks up its sleeve and shouldn't be underestimated.
Book and Lyrics by Rachael Migler
Music by Eric Grunin
Starring Christian Edwin Cook, Elijah Cox, Emily Hawkins, Patrick Hill, Neill Kelly, Cash Maciel, Marko McRae, Kayla Muldoon, Jordan Nazos, Sarah Ohlson, Britton Paige, Sarah Schol and Melanie Vitaterna
Based on a true story, a Manhattan socialite climbs all the way to the top only to have her life, and her family's prestigious name come crashing down. Previously produced at the Kennedy Center in D.C and the Emerging Artists Theater in New York, Brooke now makes a flashy appearance in Chicago. This story captures the old fashioned essence of a Hello, Dolly! or Mame. The excerpt showed Brooke contemplating a proposal from her future husband among her panel of rich, high pitched laughing, scheming friends. The number felt straight out of the golden age of Broadway musicals delighting in the fantasy of marrying rich and being set for life. But paradise does have a price, as Brooke's fiancee's flaws including violent and desperate tendencies are brushed under the rug in exchange for millions and more. The show seems to ensure some chuckles and crowdpleasing musical numbers.
Words and Music by Ryan Martin
Starring Rachel Guth, Jordan Pokorney, Maureen Sanderson and Rachel Whyte
Try saying that ten times fast. From its long-winded, but aptly named title, this show immediately grabbed my attention. Hadley deals with the passing away of her father. With an emotionally distant mother and a looming psychologist, Hadley decides to take matters into her own hands in "Turning Around". A powerful, pop infused anthem, Rachel Guth builds a momentous story in less than thirty-two bars. She pulls at your heartstrings with this fearless spontaneity that comes from being young which when viewed as an adult is both worrisome and inspiring. It captures the moment when the protagonist rises to the challenge in accepting their heroic task, but that also comes with unanticipated consequences. But in this moment it's pure bliss, and a feeling worth holding onto. For a show that deals with such heavy topics, I was happy to see a moment of release that also keeps us guessing of wanting to know where Hadley goes from here.
Overall, there were noticeable trends among this year's selections. Comedies are in and even the more somber shows have light moments. There's an apparent fondness for historical eras and source material as a catalyst for storytelling. From figures like Sherlock Holmes and Brooke Astor to deriving from nostalgia with the movie everyone loves to hate in The Room, and the classic American Girl book, The Care and Keeping of You.
The idea of loss also seems to shape a lot of these stories with cancer, losing a parent as a child, and trying to find your way back into loving the artistic process. This idea didn't only apply to these musicals' plots. The more I saw excerpts from each of these shows I couldn't help but notice a lack of representation in terms of race. While musical theatre has a history of being primarily white narrative driven (and not forgetting its siblings of white washing and racism which irritably still make it onto the modern stage and screen), I found myself rather disappointed to not see much progress on this front here.
Part of what's always made me love musical theatre (and theatre in general) is its ability to be a place for everyone in terms of race, gender, sexual expression, and socio-economic status to be present and more importantly, heard. Singing can provide so much solace and further amplify perspectives not otherwise possible in other mediums. To deliver a message in musical form is the opportunity to lead all eyes and ears of an audience toward a central objective which is a powerful thing. Emphasis on powerful.
Musicals can hold a great magnitude, and who these stories are told by as a means of power should be given great consideration. So when an event is titled the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival and promotes a visual representation of artists of color in its advertising when the opposite is true, it makes this promise false. I expect when I walk into the theatre to see faces that I would when I step outside my apartment or board the El, but sadly this isn't always the case. It can often feel like a luxury to be surrounded by people of color in a room when it should be the standard.
While I find myself looking forward to some of these shows, I can't help but think of the missed opportunity for CMTF to exist as an entity for promoting and developing stories that reflect the identities of most of this city's residents. Perhaps next year.