The Chicago Musical Theatre Festival, now in its second year, is a new-works festival produced by Underscore Theatre company. We created CMTF for one reason: there’s a wealth of musical theatre creators and performers in Chicago, but the high risks of producing new musicals means that few companies are willing to take a chance, especially on new authors. CMTF is designed from the ground up to showcase Chicago’s emerging musical theatre creator community, and this year’s festival features 13 brand-spankin new musicals!
Seagulls is an indie-rock musical loosely based on Anton Chekov’s The Seagull. This contemporary retelling of the classic tragicomedy follows four friends and bandmates at a small college as they struggle to achieve artistic greatness without losing themselves—or each other.
Since author Beth Hyland invited me to Seagulls’ last performance, she must have plans to remount it elsewhere. I certainly hope some enterprising company targeting a young audience is wise enough to pick it up. In this retelling, Constantine is the leader of a band that includes Nina, Simon, and Masha, which he names “Seagulls,” because they’re so underappreciated. Yes, Con is angsty as usual here, but the mastery in Hyland’s writing (and Sammy Zeisel’s performance) is that he’s also deeply lovable, and quite similar to a troubled friend you probably have if you’ve spent much time around artists. These four characters are the only ones who appear in the play, which allows much more fleshing out of their friendships. In Chekhov’s original they competed for stage-time and audience sympathy with their elders, particularly Con’s mother and her interloping lover, Trigorin. The songs are, as the synopsis says, indie rock, played on instruments like ukuleles, synthesizers, acoustic guitars, and, the biggest challenge to a sound designer, an onstage drum set. The music exists within the world of the play as the characters’ artistic output, which is a successful device, and maintains the show’s sad, tender tone. Actually, for recent college grads who recognize their own circle of friends in Hyland’s characters, Seagulls is a sharp jab to the heart, and Hyland mercifully spares us Chekhov’s full gloom, as well as substituting his vaudevillian comedy for more humanistic foibles.
For more information, see CMTF’s website.