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: Ghosts (New Rock Theater)

     
     

Young ensemble struggles with Ibsen complexities

     
     

A scene from New Rock Theate's production of 'Ghosts' by Henrik Ibsen

  
New Rock Theater presents
  
Ghosts
   
Written by Henrik Ibsen
Directed by Derek Bertelsen
at New Rock Theater, 3933 N. Elston (map)
through Feb 27  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts is a terribly difficult play. It is talkie, chocked full of nuanced emotional twists and laden with the secret shames. Indeed, its characters’ morbid preoccupations with reputation may seem absurd to a modern audience. Take Pastor Manders’ (Robert McConnell) recommendation to Mrs. Alving (Brittany Ellis) that she not insure the orphanage she is setting up in her deceased husband’s honor. Insuring the rest of her mundane property is not a concern but, as the orphanage has been established for a higher purpose, it ought to rely solely upon the protection of God alone. Insuring the orphanage would signal a lack of faith, something the pastor cannot be seen in association with. Deeply concerned for his reputation, since he takes care of the business end of the orphanage, Manders presses Mrs. Alving to forego insurance. Ridiculous, but there it is. Mrs. Alving gives way, with disastrous results.

A scene from New Rock Theate's production of 'Ghosts' by Henrik IbsenGhosts is an immensely difficult play to translate to a modern audience, even with mature and experienced actors. Director Derek Bertelsen’s cast is simply too young and green at the start of their careers to give us fully fleshed out  19th-century characters or depict the psychological influences that inform their relationships. Instead, the actors flounder in the sea of Ibsen’s language, often overplaying their roles, then missing important nuances. It matters, because when all is said and done, what shocked Ibsen’s audience in his day doesn’t shock us today. After the shock is gone all that’s left are the relationships—like the relationship between a woman and the man she might have loved or the relationship between that woman and her son, who she estranged herself from for his sake.

McConnell plays a man stiff in his religious views but the stiffness of his body language and delivery comes across as caricature, not as a human being struggling with the disparity between his moralistic worldview and the reality right before his face. Ellis has some beautifully tender moments revealing the hypocrisy of her marriage to Manders and in her motherly role with her son, Oswald (Jason Nykiel), but that seems to be the extent of her range. Elsa Richardson plays Regina Engstrand with far too obvious flirtatiousness for a servant girl of the period. As her father, Jacob Engstrand, Patrick Doolin seems totally out of his depth, with no sense whatsoever of how to play a conniving, ruthless, old, working-class lecher.

The only thing that can be recommended is more acting experience, more research into the period and more lived experience for all involved with the production. As suits the production, Steven Hill’s set and lighting design is quite flat, sparse and unimaginative. New Rock Theater has bitten off more than it can chew with this production. Hopefully this can be a lesson learned about choosing your material wisely.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

A scene from New Rock Theate's production of 'Ghosts' by Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts continues Wednesday, January 26th through Sunday, February 27th. Thursday through Saturday shows 7:00 pm, Sunday matinee 2:00 pm. NO PERFORMANCE ON FEBRUARY 12th Tickets: $20 Regular Admission / $15 for Students or Seniors / Group Rates available. Cash or check only at the door. More info at New Rock Theater’s website.

  
  

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REVIEW: Stalk (La Costa Theatre)

     
     

Grim fairy tale never lightens up

 

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La Costa Theatre presents
   
Stalk
 
By Stephen Gawrit
Directed by James Wagoner
La Costa Theatre, 3931 N. Elston, et al. (map)
Through Nov. 28  | 
Tickets: $15–25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Uncomfortable topics have been the subject of many musicals, but rarely one so agonizing as Stalk, a world premiere by Stephen Gawrit currently at La Costa Theatre. This very dark story uses the fairy tale of "Jack and the Beanstalk" as a metaphor for child abuse.

That Stalk isn’t an ordinary musical becomes apparent right from the beginning … more than 10 minutes go past before we get to the first song. Instead, we hear young Jack’s parents engaged in a bitter off-stage argument, full of invective and foul language, and watch him sneak away with his grandmother to a strange circus where an odd, Bradburyesque barker tells the familiar story of the boy who traded the family cow for a handful of magic beans.

Stalk the Musical - La Coste Theatre 023Cleverly conceived in many ways, the show features larger-than life puppets and masks conveying the fairy-tale characters. Gawrit employs interesting characterizations and intriguing uses of fantasy to emphasize his point.

But it never, ever lightens up. Stalk is a downer from start to finish. We watch Jack grow up in fear and pain with his brutal father and drug-addled mother, two bitterly disappointed souls forced to give up their youthful goals to be a musician and actress to return to their hometown, where he works in an abattoir and she waits tables. We witness a vicious beating and worse. Poor Jack’s only solace is his fey and ineffectual grandmother, and she dies in a pretty ugly way in front of him.

Hamlet has more bright notes than this show. There’s almost no comic relief. Other musicals, The Who’s Tommy, for instance, manage to deal with such very serious themes in far more entertaining and less depressing ways.

The pop/soft-rock tunes of Gawlit’s often dirgelike score underscore the grim mood. The music’s pleasant and well-performed, but after a while it all sounds the same. There’s not an upbeat song in the bunch.

Even "I Shine for You," a love song that Lily and Gregory, Jack’s parents sing to each other, has dark edges. "Edge of My Horizon," a song the then-teenaged Jack and his friend, Greta, sing at the start of the second act is lighter and more charming than most, but it isn’t enough to provide a lift. The score needs a few sparklers.

 

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The cast sings and acts well. Helene Alter-Dyche puts in a beguiling, if not always comprehensible performance as the grandmother. Scott Danielson terrifies as Gregory, the gruesome father/giant, and Meghan Phillipp seems suitably vacant as Jack’s mother, who metamorphoses into an ugly witch. Jacob Carlson creates a barker full of sinister mystery, really a highlight of the show.

Melissa Imbrogno portrays Greta, a friend of Jack’s who isn’t very well explained, but may live in a similarly abusive household. Jordan Phelps imbues Jack with terror and confusion.

The brightest spots in the whole show, though, are Lauren Michele Lowell’s fanciful costumes, particularly those of Jack and Greta in the second act.

Only sadists enjoy watching this much relentless pain. As important as the musical’s message is, Gawlit and company need to remember that they’re creating entertainment, and take this back to the drawing board to add happiness and hope, not to mention some stand-out songs.

  
  
Rating: ★★
   
   

Stalk the Musical - La Coste Theatre 026

 

        
        

 

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REVIEW: Jerry and Tom (Idle Muse Theatre)

Searing thriller or side-splitting farce?  Who knows.

JT1

Idle Muse Theatre Company presents:

 

Jerry and Tom

By Rick Cleveland
Directed by Lenny Wahlberg
At the side project, 1439 W. Jarvis Ave.
Through March 21st
(more info)

Reviewed by Ian Epstein 

It’s unclear what brought Jerry (Matt Dyson) and Tom (Brad Woodward) together.  It’s unclear why they’re both in the line of work that they’re in.  It’s unclear who the man with the black bag over his head with his hands bound behind his back, sitting in the spotlight, is (though the role of corpse-recurrent is played by Brian Bengston). 

JT4 But it is clear what will happen to the man in the black bag when the phone rings and it is clear that Tom has done this many times before–has answered the phone, has green-lighted close quarters death by buckshot – even if Jerry, wielding the weapon like an amateur with a baton in a parade, is the one playing our trigger-prone young hot shot. And what is the natural response of our corpse-in-waiting to impending assassination? Tell bad animal jokes.

As the rest of the play unfolds in multiple vignettes spanning years of training and development as a team, it becomes clear that Jerry and Tom are hitmen.  They’re not your thrilling, glamorous, Hollywood hitmen living life bruised and wandering the world over with forged identities or double-O assignments. And they’ve got no clear relationship to the comedic cat-and-mouse duo Tom and Jerry.  Nope. These are just your everyday hitmen, with kids and wives and all the burdens of regular life tucked away offstage and only occasionally discussed in the long spells of waiting to kill-off targets of indeterminate importance for a clandestine, potentially criminal organization with unknown leadership.

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Lenny Wahlberg‘s directing would benefit from tidier, tighter transitions, although good blues in the dark does provide some enjoyment to audience members stranded in it.  Rick Cleveland‘s script overflows with crude situational jokes and it’s never clear whether the show is supposed to be taken seriously or comedically, as it lacks the high-stakes pacing, poetry or strong choice direction to support being a drama and accomplishing both.  Though the program explains the duration of time between scenes, they unfold so similarly that there’s no apparent logic that justifies the jumps in time and the play feels instead like a linear litany of melodramatic death after death after death.  If Idle Muse Theatre’s Jerry and Tom was trying for a searing, seat-gripping, anxious thriller (like Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth), it didn’t succeed.  If Jerry and Tom was trying for a side-splitting Chaplin-esque romp where the same character dies again and again and again and can’t seem to escape death, it came closer but ultimately failed to elevate the stakes high enough to become that kind of farce.  In the end, we’re just annoyingly disinterested.

 

Rating:

 

JT15

Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors. Thursday nights are industry nights. $5 ticket with headshot/resume.  Running Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:PM, Sunday matinee at 3PM, through March 21.

Cast: Jerry – Matt Dyson, Tom – Brad Woodard, and Billy, Karl, Vic, etc. – Brian Bengston.

Design Team: Lighting Design: Steven Hill, Fight Choreography: Greg Poljacik