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BWW Reviews: Team StarKid’s APOCALYPTOUR: The End of Musical Theater As We Know It, And We Feel Fine


I hardly know where to begin! Let's try this: Imagine that you are majoring in musical theater at a large Midwestern university, and that a couple of your friends-one in particular-enjoy writing pop, rock and gospel-tinged songs with a musical theater vibe. And that you all like pop culture, including blockbuster films, and that parody, of musical theater, pop culture, science fiction and more, comes easily for you. And that you like to perform-a lot-and that you put those performances on video. Maybe you post them online. Like you first did in July of 2009.

Not quite three years later, you and your former college classmates live in several different cities, but mainly Chicago and Los Angeles.  And your five original parody musicals, all filmed during live performances and posted in short segments online, have been viewed 123 million times, three of your eight cast recordings have charted on Billboard, and you've toured the country several times, performing your songs to packed houses-even  though you're all working on other music and theater and film and television projects. Your fan base is young, but growing. And now , you're at it again, for a five-week, 21 city tour.

Of course, I'm talking about StarKid Productions, aka Team StarKid, and their "Apocalyptour," which opened last night at Chicago's House of Blues (a second show is tonight). The troupe behind "A Very Potter Musical," the Billboard phenomenon "Me and My Dick," the BroadwayWorld Chicago Award-winning "Starship" and more, heads off to Indianapolis, Nashville, New Orleans and points beyond in the coming days, mostly playing House of Blues venues, but sometimes other clubs and occasionally a theater (the Roseland Theatre in Portland, Oregon, for instance, and the Uptown Theater in Kansas City, Kansas). And the show they are presenting? It's a meta, meta, meta musical theater experience, mostly for the young, but young is a relative term. Again, I hardly know where to begin.

First, the audience. It was crowded, but not overly so, even though very few folks over twenty-five were in the place. Most of the ones that were out of school seemed to be parents, escorting their children (very nearly all female) to what may have been their first live concert event (unless it's a theater event-more about that later). And there's nothing wrong with that, but that's what StarKid has become-an internet sensation for teen girls who enjoy contemporary music with their parody, cute boys hanging out with girls who are just like them, and finding an outlet to buy CDs, t-shirts, posters, autographs and the like, all mostly (not entirely) squeaky clean and harmless, like a bubble-gum primer for girls who will like "Wicked" six months later. And this tour, like last fall's "The SPACE Tour," gives them the opportunity, or the fantasy, of being in the same room with young, seemingly regular performers, who they've idolized and come to know on their bedroom computers or after-school fangirl meetups.

Second, the writers. No, Darren Criss wasn't there last night. But the "Glee" star, and the original star of StarKid's first musical (as Harry Potter, the first but not the last time Criss has stepped into Daniel Radcliffe's shoes), is the composer and lyricist of most of the material presented on "Apocalyptour." He will appear as a special guest performer, however, during shows in Los Angeles (at the House of Blues on May 24) and New York (at the Roseland Ballroom on June 10, the tour's last performance). Good luck on getting tickets to those performances! Other songs performed on the tour are mostly by the teams of A. J. Holmes and Carlos Valdes, Mark Swiderski and Grant Anderson, and Nick Gage and Scott Lamps. All the songs are pop, with some rock or gospel touches, all with a musical theater sensibility of character and time and place, but, at least in the solo numbers, no advances of plot, discoveries, achivements of superobjectives or the like (at least not as presented here).

 I must say, however, that several of the songs do deserve to enter the canon of musical theater repertoire, specifically "Not Alone" from "A Very Potter Musical" (Criss), "The Coolest Girl" from "A Very Potter Sequel" (Criss), "Listen To Your Heart" from "Me and My Dick" (Holmes and Valdes), "Hold On Tight" from "Little White Lie" (Swiderski and Anderson) and "Dark Sad Lonely Knight" from "Holy Musical B@man!" (Cage and Lamps). The tour's young music director and keyboardist, Clark Baxtresser, surely contributed much to the stirring choral arrangement of the latter.

Third, the performers. Who needs Darren Criss when you've got a cast of nine actor-singers who dance (move well?), and a backing band of five, mostly based in New York and who double as the pre-show warm-up band, "Charlene Kaye and the Brilliant Eyes?" Foremost in the cast is probably Jaime Lyn Beatty, with a world-class high belt-mix. Square-jawed leading man type Joseph Walker is surely on the verge of a breakout career in television, as goofy-handsome Joey Richter is one step closer to doing. BrIan Rosenthal has a lovely tenor voice, and skinny Brian Holden has charisma to spare. Lauren Lopez and Meredith Stepien contributEd Strong vocals throughout, and Dylan Saunders and Jim Povolo contributed their own brands of manliness to the proceedings, the latter as a Mayan god of the Apocalypse, against whom the StarKids must battle to save the world in the show's framing plot device (something about archaeology and the need to perform musical theater songs to avoid impending global disaster).

Fourth, what is this? I mean, what's going on here? I should mention that the tour is directed by Julia Albain and choreographed by Katie Spelman, with production design by Corey Lubowich, lighting design by Sarah Petty and costumes by June Saito. All of these are young, professional theater artists and are all veterans of previous StarKid projects. This is in keeping with the ensemble nature of StarKid as a theater company, in that all of the folks involved in "Apocalyptour" have worked with each other before, have a shared vision of "pioneering the internet as a new outlet for theatre distribution," as the tour's promotional materials put it, and are sharing, one assumes (hopes?), in whatever financial rewards are to be had from the performance style and marketing methodologies the troupe employs.

And yet, the troupe is walking a fine line, all the way to immortality, if not the bank. What I witnessed last night was a skit (albeit a good one), of the sort of student-written musical done for assemblies and sorority gatherings at high schools and colleges across the country. Only this one was done as concert, with hand-held microphones, a visible band and almost no scenery. But the cast was wearing full costumes, and carrying on with a plot. However, all the material was from other shows, presented in a "greatest hits" style in front of a fan base who knew the original theatrical works. However again, most of them (nearly all?) knew the songs and the performers not from live performances, but from videos of those performances-and not high-tech, expensive videos, but free, somewhat medium-tech versions. And most (but not all) of the songs are parodies of musical theater conventions as well as the subjects being presented, in a post-modernist vein-not that there's anything wrong with that, but one hopes that "real" musicals, and not just parodies of them, do eventually catch on as these fans mature.

Also,  none of the performers is slick enough, in this setting, to be considered purely a singer or purely an actor-rather, they are triple-threat musical theater kids, some leaning one way or some the other, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. And many of them have done plenty of "traditional" work, in theater, music and on film. But here, they have been lucky and savvy enough to have found, created and capitalized on an outlet, a genre, a fan base and a performance style, utilizing their own growing body of work that can be presented in a variety of ways, to those familiar with the work and to those who are not.

These performances, and those coming before and (hopefully) those coming after, will continue to introduce musical theater, in an accessible, bite (byte) sized format, to fans who, if they so choose, can learn about the rest of the genre in a more mature medium. As for the young profession artists writing, creating and performing as Team StarKid? They too, have and will continue to grow beyond the troupe, and something, somewhere, will come along to replace them in due course. We'll always have the internet. And we'll always, thankfully, have Team StarKid. The world will not end with "Apocalyptour." In contrast, for many, it is just a blessed, golden beginning.

All photos by Chris Dzombak

Chicago Crowd: Opening night of APOCALYPTOUR at the Chicago House of Blues, Wednesday, May 9, 2012.

Different As Can Be: BrIan Rosenthal and Joseph Walker sing "Different As Can Be" from A Very Potter Musical on opening night of APOCALYPTOUR at the Chicago House of Blues, Wednesday, May 9, 2012. 

Apocalyptour – Team StarKid: Team StarKid accidentally awakens an angry Mayan deity in APOCALYPTOUR.  Pictured left to right are Joey Richter, Joseph Walker, Brian Holden, Jaime Lyn Beatty, Dylan Saunders, Lauren Lopez and BrIan Rosenthal.

Mayan God of the Apocalypse: Jim Povolo as the Mayan God of the Apocalypse on opening night of APOCALYPTOUR at the Chicago House of Blues, Wednesday, May 9, 2012. 

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From This Author Paul W. Thompson

Paul W. Thompson, a contributor to since 2007, is a Chicago-based singer, actor, musical director, pianist, vocal coach, composer and commentator. His career as (read more...)