Chicago Theater Review: [TITLE OF SHOW] (Northlight Theatre in Skokie)

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by Paul Kubicki on June 4, 2012

in Theater-Chicago

[title of review]

The Northlight Theatre decided to step off of the beaten path this season, putting on the relatively unknown cult musical [title of show]. The simple premise has two writers, Jeff and Hunter, who are trying to write a show about themselves writing a show ([title of show] refers to the New York Musical Theatre Festival’s application form). The boys enlist the help of two actress friends, Heidi and Susan, and we follow their creative process from conception to first performance, and ultimately Broadway. Accompanied only by four chairs and a keyboard, the four actors on stage are retelling the true story of librettist Hunter Bell and composer/lyricist Jeff Bowen, whose friendships, minds, and talents were sorely tested during the creation of their musical.

Paul Kubicki's Chicago review of [title of show] at Northlight

Part of the enjoyment is that the musical consistently makes fun of itself and other musicals; because it is jam-packed with references to great Broadway hits and flops, those with minimal knowledge of the theatre may find themselves distanced because they are not in on the joke. For those aficionados who can rattle off a tsunami of Broadway divas and trivia, this show was written for you. Either way, Northlight’s production hits all of the right notes. It is quirky, funny, painstakingly honest and full of heart—everything that the musical intends to be.

Paul Kubicki's Chicago review of [title of show] at Northlight

While the show moves dangerously close to kitsch, it also offers an honest, open look at what it takes to write a musical. It strips the glamour away and lays bare the creative process for what it really is—difficult, painful, absurd, and altogether rewarding. Susan notes that some say art is easy for them, then tells us: “While I celebrate their creative freedom, a little part of me wants to punch those motherfuckers in the teeth.” Even though the line can be categorized as cute, [title of show] really delivers on this sort of frustration. For our protagonists, putting this show together not only becomes difficult, but nearly tears their friendships apart and drives them to despair. As silly as the show might be at times, it has more earnest heart than any show I’ve seen in recent memory.

Paul Kubicki's Chicago review of [title of show] at NorthlightAs the book-writer Hunter, Matthew Crowle delivers a delightfully bizarre performance. His comic timing is spot-on, but he never sacrifices an honest portrayal of Hunter, especially important when we see him torn between watching the Food Network and online porn or actually writing the show. In perfect contrast to Crowle is Stephen Schellhardt, who impeccably embodies Jeff, the sassy, sarcastic composer. The two play off one another nicely, and can effectively make the jumps between comedy and heart that the show constantly demands.

The real stars of this show, however, are not the leads. McKinley Carter gives a truly wacky, over-the-top yet stunningly accurate performance as Susan. While at first she seems to be over-performing, not quite as honest as the rest of the actors on stage, she sinks in and gets to Susan’s heart effectively. It is hard not to fall in love with her and all of her quirks by the time she rolls into “Die, Vampire Die!” an extremely eccentric rallying song about speed bumps in the creative process (or vampires, as she calls them).

Paul Kubicki's Chicago review of [title of show] at NorthlightHeidi, who is forever bound to being a Broadway understudy or pit singer, is stunningly played by Christine Sherrill. She brings down the house with “A Way Back to Then,” a song about the childlike wonder she seeks to return to. The role is brilliantly written, and Sherrill delivers, bringing the show a unique depth and authenticity.

Peter Amster’s direction makes the play feel so organic and fluid that it is hard to imagine it even having a director. Just like the show itself, Amster’s staging is very inventive, even if it doesn’t stray too far from the original Tony-nominated production. Rather than upsetting a balance that seems to work, he keeps things simple, and lets the actors really drive the show.

Paul Kubicki's Chicago review of [title of show] at Northlight

[title of show] is truly unlike anything else I have seen. It celebrates art and all of the trials and tribulations involved in the creative process with a constant, acute sense of self that is extremely refreshing. While it may not be for some, those who are taken along for the ride (and you know who you are) will be rewarded with a remarkably fun but profound experience.

Paul Kubicki's Chicago review of [title of show] at Northlight

photos by Michael Brosilow

[title of show]
Northlight Theatre
9501 Skokie Blvd in Skokie
ends on June 9, 2012
for tickets, call 847.673.6300 or visit Northlight Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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