Regional Reviews: Chicago
Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen's meta-theatrical musical [title of show], a surprise hit in New York, has also done well in Chicago, following well received productions by Northlight Theatre and Brown Paper Box Company, producer of this show. Brown Paper Box returns to the Bell-Bowen well with the team's follow-up musical Now. Here. This. (with Susan Blackwell a star of [title of show] joining the creative team as co bookwriter with Bell). This latter musical didn't enjoy the same reception as the team's earlier one, which earned a transfer to Broadway, but it's a charming and tuneful piece that again makes the case for Bowen as a musical theatre songwriter on the rise. His 15 songs are skillfully and movingly delivered by the strong-voiced quartet of Neala Barron, Matt Frye, Anna Schutz and Nick Shoda. Though the performers start off with a little too much cruise-ship sunniness, they settle down as the 100-minute intermissionless piece progresses and the stakes rise.
Bell, Bowen and Blackwell's premise is four youngish (the characters seem intended to be thirtysomethings, though the performers read younger than that) friends visiting a science museum (Chicagoans might picture the places as the Field Museum, the Adler Planetarium and the Shedd Aquarium all rolled into one). An opening number ("What Are the Odds?") makes the point that the randomness of nature has brought us all together right now, as living social creatures interacting in the same space and time. Unseen narrators and projections describe the natural history that has brought us all to this day and the four characters reflect on moments in their personal histories that have led up to this moment. The connection between this overall premise and the individual stories is tenuous and a little confusing, but the anecdotes shared by the characters frequently resonate.
The reminiscences reveal a common thread of the characters' lifelong desires to be something more and have something more than they are or have at that moment and how they have struggled to fit it. They remember how as adolescents, they had to have just the right designer labels on their clothes to fit in with the in crowd. "Woman 1" (Barron) tells a story of how she feared disapproval when the mother and brothers of a popular girl at school stopped at her home filled with clutter from her hoarder mother. "Man 1" (Shoda) remembers how he hid his interests in musical theater from his fraternity brothers, professing to prefer more typically masculine pursuits. "Man 2 (Frye)" believes if he can get the handsome museum guard to go out with him, his life will be more meaningful. "Woman 2 (Schutz)" recalls how she finally came to terms with her father, who was so reluctant to ever say he loved her, though she knew he did.
The songs are delivered in fine form. Barron has a versatile and lovely voice that can go soft when needed for the ballads while Anna Schutz is a more of a belter and comic actress. Nick Shoda is a sweet and charming guy. Matt Frye works a little too hard as the awkward Man 2, but he's a strong singer and likable presence.
M. William Panek directs the piece unpretentiously. There's no set just a few portable screens on which the museum "exhibits" are projected but there is a very capable four-piece band conducted by keyboardist Justin Harner.
The piece's ultimate message to embrace the present and one's circumstances in it is a good one, even if Bell, Bowen and Blackwell struggle to tie it into their overall concept. Now. Here. This. is more a song cycle and storytelling than a musical, and with songs as good as Bowen's, that's not a bad thing to be.
Now. Here. This. will play the Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge, Chicago, through August 21, 2016. More information at www.BrownPaperBox.org.