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!
Loosely inspired by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Slide follows an immigrant family’s arrival in an amazing new land of opportunity and beauty. But that beauty comes at a terrible price. As the inner workings of its mysterious factory are revealed, the family discovers that it is their very lives greasing the wheels. Broken and alone, one of them begins an impossible journey to make peace with the machine.
Slide is about ten years old, and has been performed in various incarnations several times before its current demonstration at the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival. The excerpt currently on display, which is only the first third of the play, is not particularly flattering. While musicals are by definition non-naturalistic, Chevalier’s book is so Brechtian that, with source material that was agit-prop to begin with, pretty much every dramatic device is an indicator of oppression, instead of a representation of actual working class struggles. Jurgis and Ona are, in this adaptation, Chicago natives. He sold clocks outdoors until a blatantly Satanic factory owner offered him a chance to move to a different town and take an assembly line job making “art.” There, the workers complain that they don’t get enough bathroom breaks, imply they get bad retirement packages, and are expected to have good attitudes, while Ona gets bored making instant mac and cheese every night. Jurgis’s younger brother, Stanislaus, is an insufferable brat who Jurgis pulls out of middle school, because the women of the household obviously can’t work (the language of the play and references to technology are all circa 2005), and the boss pays Stanislaus to steal smarter kids’ homework. Jurgis’s mother is a “truthseeker” who meets some fellow outcasts and sings a lament about having to write for pet-owner magazines to make it as a columnist, which she does in a Central European style because invoking the counterculture of the 1920s is how leftists demonstrate their relevance.
Most of the other songs are rock, CDs are available for purchase at the show, in which they come across reasonably well. Maybe if we got to see the rest of the story, the weak connection to working class in favor of the artistic ennui of philosophers would be subverted, but since the point of CMTF is to develop new musicals, the creative team must have realized that at this time, they will only invite comparisons to Oracle’s The Jungle, which won the Jeff awards for best adaptation and original music a month ago.
For more information, see CMTF.org.
Playing at The Den Theatre, 1333 N Milwaukee Ave. Performances are July 8 at 6:00 pm, July 16 at 10:00 pm, and July 17 at 8:00 pm. Running time is sixty minutes with no intermission.