Review: The First (and Last) Musical on Mars (New Rock)

     
     

Too messy, even for schlock

     
     

Gina Sparacino and Meghan Phillpp in New Rock Theater's "The First (and Last) Musical on Mars", by George Zarr.

  
New Rock Theater presents
   
   
The First (and Last) Musical on Mars
   
Written by George Zarr
Directed by Kevin Hanna
at New Rock Theater, 3933 N. Elston (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $10-$15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

I generally love schlock musical comedy. The emotions are elemental, the humor, raw, the plots, joyfully ridiculous. Yet, is it possible for schlock to be too schlock-y, even for schlock? Of course—and as Exhibit A, I present to you The First (and Last) Musical On Mars, onstage now at New Rock Theater. New Rock rocked Chicago twice with its utterly gnarly and awesome crowd-pleaser, Point Break Live! (our review Leah Isabel Tirado in New Rock Theater's "The First (and Last) Musical on Mars", by George Zarr.★★★). But it seems that they’ve taken this fledgling comedy review too early from its nest.

Written and composed by former Sirius Satellite Radio spoken word maven George Zarr and directed by Kevin Hanna (musical direction Robert Ollis), The First (and Last) Musical On Mars still looks like it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be when in grows up. Angel Tuidor’s costuming and Ellen Ranney’s set design suggest heavy influences from 1970’s David Bowie and Roxy Music. Indeed, the use of glitter is almost blinding. But Zarr’s musical compositions are a hodge-podge of pop and Broadway. In fact, hodge-podge is a nice way of putting it. The tune “Sweet Alien Boy” is overlaid on the chord structure of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady,” but its execution just doesn’t rock. The first act finale, “Sibling Rivalry”, can’t be described as anything other than a messy attempt at pop-operetta.

As space opera, The First (and Last) Musical On Mars is just too jumbled and patched together to excite. Add awkward scene transitions and the show barely holds together. But it does have a few fun and tender moments. Rock star James (Sam Button-Harrison) is forcibly teleported to Mars for the coronation of twin princesses Hendrixia (Gina Sparacino) and Hollilia (Meghan Phillipp) and, ta-da, romantic entanglements ensue. It’s certainly fab to watch the girls zoom about in their ship to the song “Retro-Rocket Warp Speed.” Once James lands, a few tender, romantic moments stand out with the coy duet between him and Holliliah with “Different Beings, Different Worlds” and Button-Harrison’s warm reprise of “You Take Me to Paradise.” It must be noted that the entire cast’s voice quality is quite above standard for musical comedy review. Now, if they only had the material to match their talents.

     
Sam Button-Harrison in New Rock Theater's "The First (and Last) Musical on Mars", by George Zarr. Meghan Phillipp and Sam Button-Harrison in New Rock Theater's "The First (and Last) Musical on Mars", by George Zarr.

So far as comedy goes, Matthew Isler’s dry robot servant, Electrolux, stands out–and that’s mostly because he has great miniature signage that he flourishes most effectively. All the same, with the exception of brief one-liners like “Earth guys are easy!” the entire book badly needs a rewrite. Dallia Funkaster (Casey Kells) and Zabathoo (Leah Tirado) make decent evil villains, attempting to kill the princesses and take over Mars, but that has entirely to do with their level of enthusiasm and not the writing. Meanwhile, the Chorus (Rachel Bonaquisti, Liz Hanford, and Allison Toth) always comes across sweet and lovely, while Jonas Davidow has to be thanked just for wearing a g-string.

But it’s back to the drawing board for the creator. Or his venture into the heart of shlock will be, dare I say, lost in space.

  
  
Rating: ★½
   
  

Gina Sparacino, Meghan Phillpp, Sam Button-Harrison and Chorus Rachel Bonaquisti, Liz Hanford, and Allison Toth in New Rock Theater's "The First (and Last) Musical on Mars", by George Zarr.

The First (and Last) Musical on Mars continues through June 19th at New Rock Theater, 3933 N. Elston (map), with performances Fridays and Satrudays at 10pm and Sundays at 8pm.  Tickets are $15, and can be purchased by phone (773-639-5316) or online at http://www.newrocktheater.com/tickets.htm.

  
 

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Review: Letters/X (Apollo Theater Chicago)

     
     

‘Anti-Valentine’s cabaret’ comes on too strong, but not without laughs

  
  

Bergen Anderson, Jessica Jane Childs, Matthew Isler, Tom McGrath, and Anthony Roberts in 'Letters/X' at Apollo Studio Theater in Chicago.

    
Apollo Theater presents
  
Letters/X
  
Adapted by Anthony Roberts
Directed by
Matthew Zaradich
at
Apollo Theater, 2540 N. Lincoln (map)
through March 12  | 
tickets: $10-$12  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Only in the emotional vacuum of a break-up does it seem like a good idea to e-mail unsolicited diary entries to your married ex-boyfriend.

So goes one hilarious story of dejection in Letters/X, Chicago’s annual cabaret devoted to performing real-life exchanges about love gone sour. Currently in its eighth incarnation, the Shadenfreude slam is currently performing its first run in its new venue at the cozy, well-suited Apollo Studio Theater.

Dressed mostly in V-Day red, white and black, The young five-person ensemble (Bergen Anderson, Jessica Jane Childs, Matthew Isler, Tom McGrath, Anthony Roberts) presents submitted texts as monologues and songs by adaptor Anthony Roberts with direction by Matthew Zaradich.

You can’t ask for better inspiration. Break-up letters are a special brew of bad ideas, written by the emotionally compromised for reasons beyond their better sensibilities. And–surely to Letters/X‘s mirth–the emergence of text messages and Facebook posts as forms of legitimate romantic communication have only grown the broken heart rant supply. After all, unlike their handwritten counterparts, those digital venting-outlets share a brand of immediacy that outperform the body’s rate of metabolizing the alcohol that usually provokes angsty letter-writing in the first place.

Sometimes the performed letters aren’t break-up notes at all, but instead love propositions that are so bad they accomplish the same task. It all makes for superb material for cathartic, cringe-worthy comedy.

When the creative team here trusts that material, it does.

Too often, though, it seems like they feel the need to heighten it. These comedians have talent, but for some reason it gets veiled behind loud, cartoonish facades–never so much so to wholly smother the risible material, but just enough to become grating (the ladies are a little less guilty than the gents). A crank-it-to-eleven style may play well in a 1,000-person proscenium, but the Apollo Studio seats about 50. When good jokes are performed at you instead of to you, they feel less funny as a result.

Fortunately, there are segments where the comics subdue their inner-Screech and relax, bringing out the sensitivity and irony of the monologues. In response, the laughs become easier and more genuine.

The songs too are hit and miss. Numbers like “Psycho Hose Beast” don’t offer much more than their title, but others like “Brokenhearted Anthem” are surprisingly sweet and catchy. The music interludes help keep the pace brisk and the action engaging.

Conceptually, Letters/X is gold, and I hope it remains a Chicago institution–albeit a better tweaked one. This year’s presentation is a satisfying if warbly song for the newly single. 

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Bergen Anderson, Jessica Jane Childs, Matthew Isler, Tom McGrath, and Anthony Roberts in 'Letters/X' at Apollo Studio Theater in Chicago.

Ensemble: Bergen Anderson, Jessica Jane Childs, Matthew Isler, Tom McGrath, and Anthony Roberts.   

Production: Jessica Jane Childs (producer), Stephanie Clark (stage manager), Anthony Roberts (producer/adaptor & composer), Jessica Roberts (lighting design), Matthew Zaradich (producer/director).