Chicago Theatre Review
Millennials Looking for Love
Next Thing You Know – Refuge Theatre Project
A brand new theatrical company has somehow managed to blossom in spite of this bitterly cold, snowy Chicago winter. Dedicated to premiering original ensemble musicals created by new American composers and lyricists, Artistic Director Ross Egan takes command of this first production, hoping to launch his company into Chicago’s busy theatrical scene. Nestled in one of the intimate venues at the Den Theatre, Egan feels the West Loop corridor is ripe for some fresh blood, especially a company whose mission is to present new, original musicals.
Their first offering, composed by Joshua Salzman, with a book and lyrics by Ryan Cunningham, is about four 20-somethings struggling in New York’s Greenwich Village, searching for love and meaning in their lives. One of the problems with this show is that it first originated as a song-cycle musical, comparable to Jason Robert Brown’s “Songs for a New World” or Adam Guettel’s “Myths and Hymns.” Although each song can stand alone in this kind of musical, when performed together in concert a story emerges, based upon the strength of the characters and their emotional voyage expressed through the tunes. For this particular show, a plot was cobbled together, kind of as an afterthought. It’s not bad, but the story and characters simply aren’t very new or terribly original. The score features songs that range from pleasant to kind of catchy, but ultimately aren’t that exciting or memorable. Because the stakes aren’t high enough in this show, there’s very little emotional connection. As a result, the audience just doesn’t care about these people.
Waverly came to the Big Apple to become an actress, but like most aspiring Thespians, she’s instead found herself locked into two part-time jobs in order to pay the bills. Putting aside her theatrical aspirations Waverly’s now contemplating accepting a full-time position with the law firm where she works and leaving behind her acting and, perhaps, her bartending gig, as well. Her live-in boyfriend, Darren, is an aspiring playwright, although he spends his days working as a temp and his nights drinking away his extra cash and his disappointments, at the bar where Waverly works. Also employed at the Sullivan Street Tavern is Lisa, a young barkeep and singer, who dated Darren for while before coming out of the closet. Now her dreams focus on meeting Ms. Right and heading off into the sunset together, perhaps to California. Luke’s life plan, on the other hand, is confined to the here and now. A womanizing stud who doesn’t see a big picture for his life, other than bedding every woman he meets, Luke is a college frat boy who never grew up. These four floundering Millennials populate Salzman and Cunningham’s musical and frankly, audiences will find little about them to like, admire or care.
As Waverly, Morgan Glynn Briggs is the most engaging actress in this extended one-act. She comes off as someone theatergoers might actually enjoy meeting, although why she decides to leave Darren is a bit confusing. As the bright, friendly young woman running the bar and trying to figure out her next career move, her character speaks to many. Briggs’ friendship with Lisa, played with guts and abandon, by Aimee Erickson, is honest and endearing. Both of these young actresses are the strength of this production. Individually and together they’re accomplished singers and quite believable in their roles. Their duet, “Stay,” and Lisa’s “You Can’t Be Everything You Want” stand out among the score’s more interesting songs.
Taylor Okey, who impressed in Jedlicka’s “Big Fish,” does a fine job as Darren. He’s just not given that much to do in this musical. He delivers up angst like a pro, as well as frustration and depression. It isn’t until the final moments of the show that the poor actor gets to explore the brighter end of his emotional spectrum. His number, “As Good As I Get” says everything about this Darren. Mr. Okey makes the most of “If She Were Coming Home,” and near the end of the show both Ms. Briggs and Mr. Okey share a lovely duet entitled, “I Wish There Were a Reason.” Jameson Wentworth’s Luke isn’t fleshed out enough for the actor to be anything but two-dimensional, primarily the fault of the script. He comes off as just an annoying scamp, especially with songs like “Morning After Omelet” and “The Way to Get a Girl.” It’s says a lot about who this musical was written for that the title song is initially sung by the two ladies, although all four actors get to join in for the finale.
Ross Eagen’s direction is a little uneven, mostly over-directing portions and with a sweeping staging that, given the limitations of the space, feels too big. Michelle Manni’s inventive, stylish Sullivan Street Tavern setting cleverly breaks apart, allowing the creation of various apartment environments; but the time and energy required for the cast to divide and conquer these set pieces seems unnecessary. Less really is more. Musical Director Michael Evans, however, serves the score well, both with his actors and supplying the piano accompaniment. His three other musicians also add a lot to the musicality of this production. Someone, however, needs to refocus the light glaring off one of the music stands that blinds a portion of the audience.
New theatre companies need to be congratulated for taking a chance in this highly competitive theatrical market and encouraged to always try, try again. With their first production, Refuge Theater Project makes a decent showing, although with a stronger, better-written musical, they’ll come off smelling more like a really beautiful rose than an artificial, paper flower.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 14-March 8 by Refuge Theater Project at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-231-7691 or by going to www.refugetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.