Verve, one of the new musicals at the 2020 Chicago Musical Theatre Festival, brings us five women in a gym working out both their muscles and their personal issues to music.
Lyricist/ librettist Fran Zell and composer Karen Mendoza wanted to create a musical where five women who meet to battle the bulge in a gym could share their stories and challenges with one another, finding camaraderie and support along the way. They achieved their goal in this presentation with reasonable success. But whether or not that is enough to sing about for 90 minutes is another question entirely.
The Verve Gym, and their workout program, is run by a bossy computer voice called “Big Mother.” It made me think of the annoying purse creature in My Stepmother is an Alien. Big Mother dictates whether it is Trivia Day, Joke Day, or Truth or Dare Day. Each scenario lets the women interact slightly differently. But the talking computer, which didn’t have any other impact on their lives, really strained my suspension of disbelief and struck me as unnecessary.
The gym is populated by five women competing in their obsession for weight loss. Carrie (Erin Renee Baumrucker), is trying to look her best for her upcoming high school reunion while wrestling with a ghost of the past that is keeping her away. Ms. Baumrucker is a real treat to watch. She is funny, real, and full of variety in performance. You would want to hang out with her, in or out of the gym.
Monica (Elizabeth Renfro) has a cheating husband and a bit of a chip on her shoulder. Ms. Renfro nicely balances the good and bad of that.
Amy Rose (Samantha Russell) is the one with the farthest to go physically, and a psychological block to her weight loss with which she is struggling. She doesn’t have cancer but she is afraid she will get it, and waste away. Ms. Russell is quite sweet and touching in her role.
Jeanette (Marian Kaderbek) is an older woman who constantly complains about the struggle for power over the grandkids between herself and her daughter-in-law. Ms. Kaderbek is one of the city’s best musical theater character actresses. She brings energy, humor and sassy charm to her role.
These four women, who all are struggling with their weight, are unsurprisingly resentful of the gym’s star athlete, Linda (Maiko Terazawa). She is indeed a buff beauty with a native warmth and a lovely voice. It is impossible for the women, or the audience, to resent her in the end. When we learn that she lost over 100 pounds with hard work, we only want to say “good for her!”
The songs have serviceable music and ambitious lyrics which fall a bit short of success. The wannabe funny songs, like one about Zen and chocolate brownies, or another about how Jeanette was taught as a child that overeating is good, just aren’t that funny. “You gotta help the world, so grit your teeth and chew” is as good as these lyrics get. The serious songs, like Carrie’s “More Than Friends”, in which she sings about a high school sweetheart she tragically lost, also never quite gets beyond maudlin to moving.
A truism of good playwriting is that it is always better to show than to tell. Conflict in the here-and-now is always more interesting than being told about problems that happened earlier which we don’t see. So a show in which five characters stand around, talking and singing about events that happened offstage, is a lot less dramatically interesting than one in which we see the characters working out issues between one another in real time.
The writing team’s intention to create a supportive environment for all the characters robs the show of a chance to raise the stakes between any of them. I’d have been a lot more interested if Monica’s husband was having an affair with one of the other women she had to work out with, or if Amy Rose actually were dying of cancer and believed that exercise would cure her, but it doesn’t. I’d have loved to see Jeanette’s daughter-in-law show up at the gym, and a real barney ensue.
To its credit, the songs are original. At least it isn’t Menopause the Musical. But everything about this show falls just a little short for me. The not-quite funny or not-really-moving lyrics, the passable music, the scenario without real conflicts, the characters who end up the same at the end of the show as they started, and the lack of any compelling dramatic question in the storyline all make this a minor work.
Director Joan Mazzonelli nicely balances the tasteful performances of her cast. Musical director Mo Yeh plays a lovely and unobtrusively supportive keyboard.
I think the writers wrote a show that expresses their vision, such as it is, and does what it sets out to do competently. Whether it will be your cup of tea or not depends on how light or heavy a theatrical experience you require. But I think this show needs to pump it up to a much higher level if it is to have a future.
Additional performances of Verve are February 14 at 7 p.m., February 14 at 10 p.m., February 16 at 3 p.m. and February 20 at 8 p.m. For tickets, go to www.cmtf.org.