Review: CHICKS IN HEAVEN at Creative Cauldron

A mystical journey is on stage now at Creative Caludron

By: Apr. 15, 2024
Review: CHICKS IN HEAVEN at Creative Cauldron
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A new work has emerged in the ethos of original musicals in the form of Creative Cauldron’s CHICKS IN HEAVEN. Like a mystical force emerging in the night sky, this magical tale of witchcraft, friendship, and the polarized state of our country has been conjured up in the intimate Falls Church space. It’s a dreamy tale full of mystical happenings with a feminist point of view and a heavy dose of political and social commentary mixed in, but it’s not always a smooth ride and leaves the audience with more questions than answers by the end.

CHICKS IN HEAVEN tells the story of a woman, known as Frances (Karen Lange), who runs an antique shop in rural Virginia. Frances, alongside her three lifelong friends, uses witchcraft, spells, and card readings to make sense of this world. As the play demonstrates, rural Virginia can be a tough place to have these particular interests, and she’s met with a healthy dose of judgment from the town.  

We don’t spend very long with Frances before the first musical number, “There’s Still Work to Do,” literally bursts through the door. We have no idea who the other people are (yet), but we get the sense there’s something mystical and magical about these people and this antique shop. 

We then begin the process of meeting the witches we’ve just been introduced to, and it turns out they are the close friends of Frances. First, we meet Mindy (Audrey Baker), whose husband has recently died. She’s comforted by Frances, and it’s clear the two have been through quite a lot together. It’s also at this point we find out these two dabble as mediums. 

We also learn there’s a 30-year-reunion of some sort that has brought the women together in rural Virginia. It's a bit unclear why the reunion is happening, but it has brought these two women together. Also, the remaining two of their quartet are en route to join. 

Next, we meet the character Phoenix (Lenny Mendez), a younger woman who also works at the antique shop. Though Phoenix is significantly younger than the other mystically-minded women, they’ve accepted her into their activities. Our quartet is actually a quintet! However, it is unclear why this has happened, and unfortunately, we’re not given much context at all for her character other than she works at the antique shop as well. The four women are bonded so tightly and celebrating a reunion, and so Phoenix’s character can’t help but come across as an outlier. 

What we are told about Phoenix is that she has a romantic history with the town bad boy - Conrad (Ben Ribbler). Phoenix wants their relationship to be over, but Conrad has a very different opinion. After she breaks it off, Conrad sings “Left a Long Time Ago.” While a nice tune, the song, as is the case with nearly the entire score, reads as a track on an alternative rock album from the early 2000s and does very little to advance the story. As is true with the score overall, it does provide some kind of peek into Conrad’s emotional state, but we know so little about him that we don’t have a chance to care about what he’s feeling. It’s a herky jerky story to this point that has done very little to bring the audience along with it. 

Next, we meet the mother of Conrad, a right-wing, religious character named Sophie (Charlene Sloan), who is a broad caricature of the right-wing. She’s meant to be the villain of this story, and this becomes more obvious as the script goes on. She is the opposite of Frances in nearly every way, and the two clearly have tension as polarized people existing in the same community. Also, her son Conrad seems to vehemently dislike her, which perhaps inadvertently injects some empathy into Sophie’s character arc. 

After a brief encounter with Sophie, we meet the final two members of the four core women (five if you include Phoenix) - Emmaline (Krista Grimmett) and Tatiana (Pauline Lamb). The two actresses breathe some life into the action as they reunite with Frances and Mindy, and we learn these are the final two pieces of the puzzle that we were introduced to in the show’s opening number. 

While Grimmett and Lamb are truly the standouts of the piece, Grimmett’s character Emmaline unfortunately falls victim to poor execution in the script. She’s an academic, so she has a natural curiosity and inquisitiveness about the world around her. However, Carol Lee Campbell’s script uses her viewpoint as an academic to become another caricature - this time on the left. Emmaline addresses several instances of microaggressions and racism from Frances during one particularly tense scene.  

To be clear, the arguments Emmaline makes are valid and important to the discourse around social and racial equity. However, the scene becomes an echo chamber for those who agree rather than adding to the discourse around these topics. Still, the script attempts to make it seem like Frances is hearing this perspective for the first time. Even in rural Virginia, this is hard to believe.

After this tense exchange, we learn more about Frances’s daughter, who has joined a sect of the Mormon church out west. It’s referred to as “a cult,” but it’s unclear whether the piece considers all Mormons members of a cult or if this particular sect (if such a thing exists) is “cultish.” It’s a problematic presentation of the Mormon faith. Regardless, Frances sings the melancholic tune “Baby I Can’t Save You” to lament her daughter’s absence. 

After this, we now find ourselves with the five women in the woods. We assume it’s to participate in some kind of ritual, but details are scant. Mindy sings wistfully about her late husband and past life with “Destiny,” but again the song suffers from doing very little to advance the story or characters. At one point, one of the women notes they are just “aging hippies singing songs,” and audiences can make their own judgment as to the validity of this statement.

Conrad stumbles upon the women after another tense debate about racism, and the women do their best to frighten the troubled teen. After this, Phoenix sheds light onto the Latina experience, as she herself is part of, with the song “Monsters & Saviors.” However, she comes across as a symbol of the Latina experience in America rather than a nuanced, real person within the story. Her song seems forced here despite the fact that Mendez does her best with the material. 

The tension escalates from here as Emmaline’s van is vandalized with hate speech and blown up. It’s easy to draw conclusions that it was Conrad and his teen friends, but there don’t seem to be many repercussions for the boy’s actions. It’s a jumbled sequence of actions from here that result in a sudden and strange conclusion. In fact, the very last plot point that happens is actually the first semblance of a central conflict we’ve seen during the performance, and it’s a shame the play ends very soon after. As the lights come up on the audience, one is left wondering if this is really the end of the play or maybe another intermission.

Ultimately, this lack of a central conflict leaves much of the piece wandering aimlessly in the woods similar to the witches towards the end of the show. There isn’t much for the audience to latch onto in terms of what is driving the characters or the plot. There are tense moments between characters, and several important current issues are debated, but there’s never any real obstacle the characters must overcome. One wonders, then, if this piece is telling a story or just espousing viewpoints they feel the audience should hear. The characters are very static in that no one really learns anything or changes in any way, which generally is required for a compelling piece of theatre. 

Though it is tough to find your way in the story, Creative Cauldron has done a fine job of assembling talented and familiar faces from the DMV theatre scene. Karen Lange is a wonderful central character as Frances and provides a nice anchor to the rest of the ensemble. Audrey Baker continues to shine this spring (audiences will remember her delightful turn in Constellation’s DESPERATE MEASURES) in a role that is well suited for her as Mindy. The same can be said for both Pauline Lamb and Krista Grimmett as Tatiana and Emmaline, respectively. They do great work with thinly drawn characters and are excellent in their roles. 

As Phoenix, Lenny Mendez delivers a subtly powerful performance and is the closest we come to observing a character grow through the piece. As the right-wing villain, Sophie, Charlene Sloan does her best with a troubling stereotype of a character, and Ben Ribbler does the same as the town hoodlum, Conrad. In fact, Ribbler creates some sense of nuance out of seemingly thin air, and it shows real skill on the actor’s part. 

To quote the opening song, “there’s still work to do.” The “Notes from the Director” section says “we also hear dissenting viewpoints…everyone has an opportunity to speak their truth.” While it is true you observe dissenting viewpoints, these viewpoints aren’t created equally. You see likable characters promoting mainstream popular opinion from the left while very obviously unlikable ones take the views of the right. There’s only one scene where Sophie is presented with any kind of humanity, for instance, and it’s so quickly dismissed by Frances that it feels like a mistake. It’s a tough sell to promote everyone getting an opportunity to speak their truth when the characters are presented this way. 

This show is billed as a “Bold New Voices” production, and so perhaps some grace should be extended here. It is an extremely difficult pursuit to create truly original art. Creating an original musical is no exception, and the development process can be a long and arduous one. Creative Cauldron should be applauded for giving a platform to original, new work, but there is quite a bit of examination necessary to the story especially, which has significant missing points in its current state. 

CHICKS IN HEAVEN is an original musical with book, lyrics, and music by Carol Lee Campbell. Additional music is by Campbell, Jim Cash, Ashley Cash, David Graziano, and Rob Receveur. Musical arrangements are by Merissa Anne Driscoll. The show was directed by Creative Cauldron’s Founding Artistic Director, Laura Connors Hull

Other members of the creative team include Sylvana Christopher (Choreography), Margis Jervis (Costume/Props/Set Design), Lynn Joslin (Lighting Designer), James Morrison (Projection Designer), and Nicholas J. Goodman (Stage Manager).

CHICKS IN HEAVEN runs from now until April 28, 2024 at Creative Cauldron’s Falls Church space. The musical runs just over 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission.

PHOTO CREDIT: Pauline Lamb (Tatiana), Audrey Baker (Mindy), Karen Lange (Frances), Krista Grimmett (Emmaline). Photo by William T. Gallagher Photography.


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