Borderlands: Three Chords and the Truth

A World Premiere Musicalunderscore theatre

Book & Lyrics by L.C. Bernadine

Music & Additional Lyrics by Erik Olsen

Directed by Alex Higgin-Houser

Music Direction by TJ Anderson

Choreographed by Jon Martinez

Produced by Underscore Theatre Company

At Jackalope Frontier Stage, Chicago

Refreshingly original new musical captures the foibles of the shadowy alternative country musicals and songwriters

Borderlands: Three Chords and the Truth  started out as a short musical called “Mr. Munch Has a Murmur” as part of Underscore Theatre’s 2014 Musical Theatre Festival. Borderlands has emerged now as a funny, fractured, absurd yet richly tuneful piece of musical storytelling.  Utilizing the intimate Jackalope Frontier Stage at 1106 W. Thorndale, Chicago, IL,  as we enter the space we in a seedy dive country bar in Nashville. We see the walls adorned with several guitars, ukuleles, small drums, a stand-up bass and a keyboard. There are typical ‘country types’ having a beer while engaging in banter.


Once the show starts, we realize that the seven cast members are gathered to not only tell their stories but to re-write their history in an effort to gather the life they think they want. This group of musicians and songwriters believes (and demonstrates) that music really does cut to the heart of a story usually in under three minutes. Borderlands is a refreshingly entertaining  series of eight scenes wherein all seven of the cast members express their emotions, actions, up’s and down’s of living as alternative country musicians. These folks are not the country stars but they are the gypsies who play all the little rural dive bars and those who record most hits that appear low on the country charts. We see how these contemporary artists live their non-glorious lives creating and performing their music. The talent, creativity and truthfulness of this musical will impress you as well as totally engage you.


The fabulous cast is a musical ensemble of fine actors, singers and versatile musicians who tell their personal stories  as they effortlessly move from one musical instrument to another. From Hicks (Ian Knox) on bass to Sanders (Mile Mazzocca) guitar to Ryan (Jon Penick) guitar to Ellie (Sarah Beth Tanner) vocals to Marie (Demi Michalopoulos) vocals to T.J. (Aaron Davidson) keyboards to Tara (Julia Marchant), we see all seven performers tell their stories in eight scenes and  fifteen songs. This musical seamlessly incorporates the eight story scenes with the songs in a clever combination of fine book with music and lyrics that blend together expertly. What makes this musical work besides the terrific book and wonderful varied songs are the skilled singers and musicians. It is so refreshing to meet seven super-talented actor/singers/musicians whose performances emerge to be one of the most impressive ensembles seen on a Chicago stage in sometime!

In the amazingly varied tunes, we hear pure country, alternative country, a gospel ballad, pure blues, a jazz riff, touch songs, a hymn, pop, R & B and rockabilly. My favorite tune (among several) was “Food Pantry Gospel” lead by Demi Michalopoulos.  Each story has a musical style appropriate to that story “Two Minutes and 58 Seconds” sings to the power and need to create a song to express a feeling that is universal among this group.


The atmosphere created in the dive bar speaks (and sings) to the hardships and foibles and the personal need for these folks to create and perform their art. They share with each other and us some of their secrets on their way to find their own “three chords and the truth.” Their recklessness and their need to create and perform music is nicely illustrated in the School Career Day Scene where Ryan (Jon Penick) expresses why he is a musician.

Kudos to the commitment by Underscore Theatre Company to develop new musicals (a much needed commodity) through their Chicago Musical Festival ( The CHICAGO MUSICAL THEATRE FESTIVAL will be presented June 30 – July 19, 2015 at The Den Theatre).  Since Borderlands: Three Chords and the Truth came out of that festival from Underscore Theatre, that event needs to be seen. I plan to covet that Festival.

I can’t express my delight upon seeing Borderlands: Three Chords and the Truth enough. It is fun, well performed with terrific songs seamlessly integrated with clever stories. It features a talented ensemble, is well directed and comes off as a toe-tapping delight. Borderlands: Three Chords and the Truth is a tight, complete original new musical demonstrating that their are folks around who can create musicals. L.C. Bernadine & Erik Olsen with direction by Alex Higgin-Houser and music direction by T.J. Anderson have created a major new musical that begs to be seen.  This is a fun show – don’t miss it!

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: June 3, 2015

For more info checkout the Borderlands: Three Chords and the Truth page at

At Jackalope Frontier Stage, 1106 W. Thorndale, Chicago, IL., tickets $20, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 & 8 pm, Sundays at 6 pm, Mondays at 8 pm, running time is 2 hours, 20 minutes with intermission, through June 28, 2015