Over the last six years, The Chicago Musical Theatre Festival, presented by the Underscore Theatre Company, has steadily risen in quality and visibility. Now, in the wake of the sudden and sad demise of the New York Musical Festival, all eyes looking for new musicals to develop will be turning to what’s happening in Chicago.
This festival remains a scrappy event, in true Chicago style. Its non-Equity casts vary widely in musical ability, but always perform with heart. The budgets are tiny, and the production values are few. Most notably, the absence of any amplification of the performers for most of the shows sometimes makes the audience work a little harder to hear the lyrics clearly over the bands. But the upside of all this minimalism in production is an emphasis placed squarely on the writing, as it should be in a developmental presentation of a new work.
Every new show grows and changes as it moves towards commercial production. Like many audiences, I enjoy watching an interesting show over time as it develops. So the pleasure of festival going is in panning for golden nuggets of talent, in both writing and performance.
I started my CMTF experience this year with Paper Swords; book by Kelsey Nighthawk, music and lyrics both by Matt Day. In Paper Swords, a group of nerdy teens meet after school to be Live Action Players (LARPers), which is like cosplay on steroids. In their mythical kingdom of Eloren, two competing factions, Ferndrey and Silvermore, seek control of the throne through stage combat battles. At the same time, they also try to conquer their personal issues.
The leader of the Ferndrey team is girl-shy, hopelessly romantic Avery, played by Danny Ferenczi with a bland passiveness largely dictated by the writing. Next time out, I hope the team gives him a sense of humor and some spunk. A comedy song like “My Unfortunate Erection” from Spelling Bee would make him a lot more interesting.
Avery falls for Elena (Elise Delap), a fighter from the Silvermore clan. Ms. Delap is a touching performer who brings both emotional depth and an irresistible smile to her character. The idea that she has to find a way to win the boy she wants even though she has to compete with him in the game is the best element of the story structure.
Competing with Elena for dominance in their group is the acid tongued, sexy, black leather wrapped Bren, played by rising Chicago musical theater performer, Natalie Rae. She is a compelling actress and the best singer on the stage. Very early in the show, she seems intent on controlling Elena, but it’s not clear why. The writers tease us with a hint of lesbian tension, which isn’t further developed. We also never get her back story, to learn what else in her life might drive her lust for power. So Ms. Rae must rely on her considerable magnetism to hold our interest in a character who is so one dimensional.
Another favorite of mine was Will, played with nerdy charm by David Marden. It’s hard for a guy to put on eye shadow while talking about setting stuff on fire for fun, and remain universally appealing. But he does it. Will is partnered with the sexually unawakened Liz, played by a bit-too-mature Katie Cutler. Her gawky, teenage avoidance of the subject pairs well with Will’s slowly coalescing sexuality in a comic romantic subplot.
Will Rupert in the dual roles of a wannabe player, Jeffrey, and a rude Waiter, mined comic gold out of an all-too-brief time onstage.
Two other players, the apparently talented Allie Wessel, who was wonderfully funny in last year’s production of Unison, as Sam, and the nearly invisible Nora played by young Nola Tellone, are both wasted by the script, and should either be given a reason to be on stage or cut out entirely.
Eloren is ruled by an adult King, played by Cody Robison. He is introduced with a song which echoes the self-centered King George in Hamilton. But we learn later that he is actually Elena’s father, and a much more serious character. He reveals that he set up this elaborate game to help his daughter, Elena, get over the recent death of her mother.
The central conceit that the father of one of the players created this whole LARPer world for his daughter is just not believeable.What group of teenagers would ever want to play in a fantasy world created and controlled by one of their parents? However, Mr. Robison spans the demands of his role very effectively, even if the premise for the character is unconvincing.
In this kind of world-within-a-world story, our expectation is that we will become engaged in the real life issues of the characters as they move through the fictional scenario. But except for Elena, there is nothing at stake outside of the game for any of them.
In a good musical, the lyrics drive the story and reveal character in detail. Here’s where this show falls very flat. Mr. Day’s amateurish lyrics are largely responsible for the pervading sense of emotional sketchiness and banality. His music is a lot more promising. The music was made to sound better still by a really outstanding ensemble of players under the fine musical direction of Samantha Westlake.
Director Logan Jones keeps the performances as real as the writing allows.
Paper Swords is pointed in the right direction. But in the battle to score a full-blown production after its festival debut, Paper Swords is going to really have to up its game to win.
Remaining performances of Paper Swords are February 15 at 3 p.m., February 16 at 6 p.m., and February 21 at 7 p.m. For tickets, visit www.cmtf.org.