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BWW Reviews: 2nd Annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival Kicks Off

It doesn't take much to see that Chicago is a hub for musical theatre presentation. Just look at all companies that keep the classics burning bright or hold up any obscurities to the light. But as a hub for creation, specifically? Of course, there are the pre-Broadway engagements that come through, but those are swinging for well-heeled, well-established fences. So what does that make the fences of the Chicago theatre's backyard?

Through sheer trademark-Chicago chutzpah, Underscore Theatre has set its sights on precisely those fences, having established the aptly named Chicago Musical Theatre Festival, which provides a platform for homegrown artists to throw themselves at the wall and see if their work sticks. Since the festival has itself stuck around for another year, that wall is once again ready for a new line-up. With nothing but a black curtain background and minimal scenery and lights, the stage is set to see what sticks, what slides off, and what misses entirely.

How to Run for Mayor is a fine opening note for a homespun Chicago festival, very much grounded in the city's knack for improvisational humor. And though it may be second-rate Second City, it goes down well enough and there are laughs to be had. The trim little plot certainly invites them: Kim (Grace Palmer), a twentysomething NEET, decides to challenge incumbent Rahm Emanuel for the titular office because...well, just 'cause, what more do you need? (Her campaign bid, uploaded to YouTube as a joke, promises zombie apocalypses, for one.) When the video goes viral and Kim actually finds herself a viable candidate, she couldn't be more jarred out of her flippancy; Charlie (Ryan Semmelmayer), her campaign manager - who literally walks into her life with a campaign at the ready - couldn't be more alive; and Mayor Emanuel (Trent Eisfeller) couldn't be more peeved.

Gilbert Tanner's script tries to balance goofy farce, blind-siding political commentary, and earnestness, and succeeds far more in the first. Zippy and with topical references galore, Palmer and Semmelmayer still emerge as relatable characters looking for something bigger than themselves to hold onto, while Eisfeller and his magnificent eyebrows channel Harvey Korman-as-Hedley Lamarr as a Mayor who knows not only a soft-shoe, but a steel-toed boot. (Though say what you will about the Mayor, but I doubt he has ever organized any hits on his opponents. The satire ought to be a scalpel, not a battle ax.)

The songs by Aaron Aptaker (also the director) also try that tightrope walk - their closest apparent model being Michael Friedman's commentary songs for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson - and have a much harder time at it. The joke is usually up by the time the title line rolls around ("Politics is a lot like dancing," "You need a resume to prove you went to college"); the lyrics abound with slant rhyme ("college/accomplished;" "patient/basement"); and the music is basic and undistinguished in the way that garden-variety spoof-musical music usually is. (If any musical ever needed a gratuitous exclamation point, it's probably this one.) That said, the opening number, "When You're Incumbent," a breezy ain't-we-got-fun paean for the Mayor by the Mayor, sets a tone that the writers would be wise to follow more closely.

Mayor's shelf life as-is may be limited, but that's not to say that Tanner and Aptaker don't have ample time to keep sharpening what they have, or for the show to have a decent life with any number of sketch comedy troupes. They only have as long as Emanuel's in office, at least. Or as long as Chicago politics remain Chicago politics.

They have plenty of time.

Inversely (and stepping out of order for a moment), all the time in the world would not be enough to make American Smoothie go down any easier. Lacking any nutritional value, it instead goes for a sugar overload, and those don't end well. The plot (such as it is) involves Brian (Brian Elliot), a put-upon IT guy for a smoothie chain HQ and the wacky hijinks he finds himself in with his wacky co-workers and wacky roommate.

And when it's not sugar-wacky, it's Wonder Bread: Of course Brian, the soft-spoken nerd, will land the hot cipher of a secretary (Katy Fattaleh), and of course the popular, too-good-to-be-true co-worker (Jonathan Wilson) gets what's coming to him.

The two tones simply don't mesh. Act One piles on well-worn workplace situations and stereotypes (there's also a shrill demanding boss and a randy secretary) while Act Two dissolves into anarchy as it tries to untie knots that were never there. It's a fever dream that includes (among other things) Faustian bargains; sudden declarations of bird fetishes; bomb threats; dead bodies; and John Grisham. In a musical - in any performance medium - "random" doesn't really exist; everything in the world is a conscious decision, and surprises come from having missed what was, in retrospect, obvious. The writers here - Nick Jester (book and lyrics) and David von Kampen (music) - have not created a world where any of those things could be grounded in any reality. And these actors -fine actors, I'm sure - devolve before us as the writers continually fail them. (Michael Palmenderi as the CEO in particular ends up screeching half his dialogue.) This isn't camp bad. It's bad. Patronize any Wicker Park smoothie shop instead. It'll be better for you.

I can only hope American Smoothie will be but a rare misstep for Underscore, in terms of both festival selection and what shows they choose to mentor. Smoothie's selection is all the more baffling because the middle show, Fanatical, is not only promising, but already very nearly there, plainly marks writing talent, and wholly deserves the promotion. Bringing science fiction into the realm of musicals is rather hard to come across, but Fanatical has a brain, a heart, and a finger on the pulse of nerd passion and fandom.

Angel 8, a space-action TV show adapted from a long-running comic series, is only twelve episodes strong, but its cult following is stronger, and they have descended on a convention center armed with elaborate cosplays, fan art, and high hopes for the appearance of Angel 8 creator Scott Furnish (Scott Furnish). There are attendant complications: the crowds; adhering to the schedule; rumors of an anti-nerd magazine reporter spying on the event, and the absence of the keynote speaker, Mr. Furnish himself. He shows up with a whopper: The show is cancelled.

What's a fan to do?

Bookwriter Reina Hardy knows what they would do. Highly fluent in Geek and skilled at making pop culture references not only land but count, though her plotting may be a little "Babes in Arms -meets-Trekkies," she assembles a cast of characters that are all-too-likeable and all-too-real for anyone who's ever been to a con: Trix, the tighly-wound con manager subsisting on vitamins and Angel 8 love (Kat Evans scores in both her defining Act One near-breakdown and in a hilarious seduction scene in Act Two); Baxter, the eager-to-please guy who still has a ways to learn about getting up-close-and-personal (Michael Carten is very sympathetic, dodging "creeper" entirely); Andra, a fan who wears her feelings on her sleeve and through her costume (Charlotte Ostrow, both headstrong and vulnerable); and even Craig, the aforementioned spy who knows more than most con-goers than what he lets on (Stephen Garrett, both wry and earnest). Even the besotted Scott, boiling over in drunken impotent rage at his baby being cancelled, is likeable.

Matt Board's music is amiable contemporary musical theatre pop and pastiche, but his lyrics are deft and nifty yet conversational ("happy campers/ampersand;" "[fan art in] ballpoint, all pointing nowhere"). He knows which parts of Hardy's material sing and he knows how to make it sing, and with a big wink and a hug at the concept of fandom. (Song titles include "Me-Slash-You" and "Spoiler Alert").

Fanatical could perhaps afford to shave off a few minutes, but then comes the question of how to do that. The pacing as directed by Kate Staiger is quick yet easily followed, and the songs, as windows into these characters' worlds, are clear and effective. Maybe cut a verse here and there, or a punchier transition in places. The point is, these are canny writers - and a show - with a future.

And this is just the opening night of the festival.

A rough start, admittedly, but clawing your way to industry visibility isn't easy. And if any of these shows can keep fueling Underscore's mission and put Chicago on the musical writer's map, then it will all be worth it.

The Chicago Musical Theatre Festival will be presented June 30 - July 19, 2015 at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. Presentations are on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 6 pm - 10 pm; Saturdays and Sundays from 12 pm - 9:30 pm. Tickets cost $15 for one-acts and $20 for full-length productions; all-festival passes are available at a discounted rate. The full schedule of performances and tickets are available at

Founded in 2011, Underscore Theatre Company is a team of producing artists dedicated to exploring stories of power and resonance through a musical lens; fostering the development of new musicals; and bolstering Chicago's role as a national leader in musical theatre. Since- its creation, Underscore has produced 14 world-premiere musicals in Chicago. Underscore is proud to be Chicago's home for new musicals.

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From This Author Patrick O'Brien

Patrick O’Brien is a multidisciplinary theater artist, with just the face for theatrical critique. BA Theatre Arts, Minor in Music, Millikin University '14. (read more...)

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