Next Thing You Know

Book and Lyrics by Ryan Cunninghamrefuge theatre

Music by Joshua Salzman

Directed by Ross Egan

Produced by the Refuge Theatre Project

At the Den Theatre, Chicago

 Next Thing You Know Offers Little Insight on Millennial Struggles

    Coming of age stories often focus on the difficulties of defining “adulthood.” twenty-somethings frequently struggle with the transition from youth to self-dependence, and “Next Thing You Know” is another offering in the oft-repeated coming of age narrative. While the Refuge Theatre touts this play as a musical “by and about Millennials,” Ryan Cunningham’s play has very little to add to the overdone tales of yore.

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            “Next Thing You Know” follows four Twenty-something New Yorkers who are all at pivotal points in their young lives. Waverly (Morgan Glynn Briggs) works at a dive bar with her close friend Lisa (Aimee Erickson). Upon getting an offer for a job that could mean benefits and better living, Waverly struggles to make the decision, as she fears it will mean good riddance to her dream of becoming an actor. This indecision is seen by her long-time boyfriend, Darren (Taylor Okey), a man who is content with his temp job, but is worried that he’s losing Waverly.  On bad advice from an antagonizing co-worker named Luke (Jameson Wentworth), Darren decides to propose to Waverly, which sets off a series of mishaps. Can any of these people find their path to happiness?

            The question is largely unanswered in this muddled play. Darren and Waverly’s relationship doesn’t seem strong from the beginning, and there isn’t any real reason that they should be together again. Regardless, their love is the focal point of the play. Luke interferes with their relationship with his advances on a struggling Waverly. This incident leads to the most successful scene and song number in the play, “Hungover,” a song about reckless coping, confusion, and regret.

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            This is an apt moment to discuss the actual music of this musical, which is the most successful piece of this play. The string trio of guitar, cello, and violin, led by Michael Evans on piano, does an admirable job providing energy to the performance. The music is contemporary pop, very clean, and, much like the play, plays it very safe throughout. Transitions from dialog to singing never feel disjointed, and the text of the play is at its best in song. While there is a clear love for pop musicals felt within this performance, there are few, if any, risks taken on enhancing the medium.   

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            While all the performers do an admirable job with what they’re given, the script of “Next Thing You Know” does a disservice to the actors, musicians, and inventive stage design of this performance. Especially with the Refuge Theatre’s emphasis on creating fresh and inclusive theatre, it’s disappointing to see a play that offers no insight on the millennial experience. For example, with the character of Lisa, it would be valuable to witness her experiences as a struggling lesbian performer with dreams of stardom. Instead, Lisa is used as a plot point; her identity is used for cheap gay jokes and her only partner is a man.

“Next Thing You Know” could easily be about any group of upper-middle class white twenty-somethings from any generation. Let it be clear: it would be fantastic to see an inclusive musical that speaks to the struggles of twenty and thirty-somethings today, an underemployed population that is and will continue to deal with new struggles and complications as time goes on. However, “Next Thing You Know” is not that play. It speaks broadly, generically, and, ultimately, to very few.

 Not Recommended

Matthew Wrobel

Date Reviewed: February 15, 2015

 For more info checkout the Next Thing You Know theatre page at theatreinchicago.com

At the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL Call 773-231-7691, www.refugetheatre.com, tickets $15, Performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 6:00 pm, running time is 80 minutes without an intermission,  through March 8, 2015