'Take Me' shoots for the moon and lands somewhere among the stars at Strawdog Theatre
Updated: Oct 4, 2019
There's a minor, but mighty musical scene on the rise in Chicago. Broadway in Chicago brings in the majority with touring productions and BoHo Theatre, Firebrand Theatre, and Kokandy Productions are well-known for their staging of contemporary, insider musicals. Ripples have even reverberated in the suburbs with Writers Theatre (Next to Normal) and Paramount Theatre (August Rush). Even prominent storefronts are reserving slots in their seasons with Victory Gardens' previous successes in Indecent and Cambodian Rock Band, Haven Theatre's heavenly The Total Bent, and Goodman Theatre's upcoming The Music Man.
But where is room in our city to develop original musicals?
Underscore Theatre Company certainly wears the crown when it comes to housing world premiere musicals. They play host annually to the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival and are most well known for their musical Haymarket, which pays homage to the Haymarket riots. While their works don't always feel complete, their commitment and passion for musical theatre is unwavering and provides a valuable resource. This background makes Strawdog Theatre's decision to produce Take Me a hopeful one and that Chicago has a market worth expanding for the housing new musicals.
With a book by Mark Guarino, music/lyrics by Jon Langford, and orchestrations/arrangements by Anabelle Revak (The Incredible 6,000 Foot Ladder, The Bone Harp), Take Me centers on scattered, but endearing Shelley (Nicole Bloomsmith) who after experiencing significant loss longs for a sign of what life holds for her next. The answer she receives is a mixed message from the beyond causing a gob smacking spiral of events where she befriends a sincere, space cowboy (Carmine Grisolia), finds a much needed support group, and clutches to the past despite her environment suddenly shifting. But can an extra-terrestrial visit help recenter her life on Earth?
It's a starry night as soon as you step into the doors of space, and mesmerizing set design by John Wilson intertwined with projections by Tony Churchill sweeps you off your feet and ready to go flying off the handle. The established environment is disorienting, enchanting, and grim despite the jovial, whimsical nature of the text. It's easy to lose track of time among the stars with a laser focused first act that ends with a big bang, and a second act with constant twists and turns on an emotional roller coaster.
For an out of this world premiere, Take Me is surprisingly strong. It has a solid structure with crisp character exposition, finely tuned dynamics, and built in suspense that's worth tuning in for Act II. Act II swerves and circles in some definitive, but confusing choices before landing in the show's most cathartic, powerful moments. Overall, it can't be denied that its story is sharp and the plot is for the most part cohesive finishing on an illuminating, poignant note.
Where I found myself satisfied on a story level, the means by how this story's told are sometimes quarrelsome. The opening number, named after the show, shows Shelley already longing for escape, but it's established before we've gotten to know her and the reason behind this motivation. While the impetus becomes clear and the finishing details of her backstory saved until Act II, the opening jumps the gun assuming the audience feels an alien encounter could benefit Shelley without knowing her.
Suspension of disbelief is crucial to being open to this piece, but it's often tested and passes that limit. Shelley's difficult relationship with her mother is well demonstrated and played with gravitas as caring, yet distant by Loretta Rezos, but the lack of clarity about Shelley's father (Matt Rosin) makes his role inconclusive. Kamille Dawkins delivers a no holds barred, humorous performance as Shelley's childhood toy dog brought to life. Her significance becomes clear, but poses questions of the rules of this world and feels like it crosses a boundary on the severity of Shelley's mental state. There's explanations given to how her grief connects to her belief in making contact with aliens, but for Doggie speaking to her not so much. And don't get me started on the internal screaming I felt from the Russian speaking dogs that took up precious time in Act II (I wish I was kidding).
The production shines brightest when it dares to dig into its darkness, probing and examining Shelley's insecurities, longing for stability, and past choices that in her mind are incapable of redemption. I found myself sinking into the show more when it wasn't going for the apparent joke, but letting the characters' desires be cut up and sewn back together only to fall apart once more. Shelley has a monologue that defies gravity of the unknown coupled with her earth quaking struggles. Flashbacks with her family flicker as beams of light that build to devastation. Bloomsmith carries the show with a star studded performance and with comedic, gentle support from Grisolia as lovable intergalactic traveler, Travis.
Take Me takes chances with some worth taking and others best left alone. In a time where visiting another planet would be pleasurable and the horror of families continually being separated is astronomical, these parallels could have been tightly linked to produce a greater impact than is delivered. For fans of sci-fi musicals like Little Shop of Horrors and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, this show has cross-over appeal. It could likely find a place among these greats performed with glee and amusement across schools and stages alike.