Music by Jody Shelton
Directed and Choreographed by Christopher Pazdernik
Music Direction by David Kornfeld
Produced by Underscore Theatre Company
Playing at The Chopin Theatre, Chicago
Clichés Can Be Fun
Underscore Theatre Company is dedicated to developing new musicals and guiding works that are not yet fully-formed. While you never know exactly what you’re going to get, their shows are generally fun, and crafted by much more serious minds than the term “experimental” is often used to excuse. So it is with The Story of a Story (The Untold Story), the product of Colbert Report writer Peter Gwinn and Second City musical director Jody Shelton, who are used to improvising their musicals. The Story of a Story is about the writing process, and the common fears amonng artists that they are unworthy of success and that their work is clichéd. The tale is amusing, and with the comedic talent of thirteen-person cast under the direction of Christopher Pazdernik, creates an entertaining evening that anybody who’s tired of mediocre entertainment can appreciate.
Ben (Max DeTogne) is a frustrated novelist who works writing text for coloring books. Due to his fear of being unoriginal, he has never actually written a novel. His illustrator, Maggie (Lauren Paris) once dreamed of being a graphic designer, but her business failed, so she has given up on wanting good things. They are frequently harangued by their lecherous, annoying, unsociable creative manager Darwin (Kirk Osgood) about the marketability of derivative, mindless works, and told that true creative energy is best channeled into fanfiction, much to Ben’s chagrin. One day, the spam filter at work fails, and Ben receives a video offer from a mysterious man called Submarine Q. Masterful (Kevin Bishop), who is looking for creative writers. Masterful’s video is magical, and sucks Ben into the World of Creativity, an alternative dimension inhabited entirely by clichéd characters. Ben is uninterested in creating content there, and returns home, but Darwin jumps right in. Masterful again appeals for help, this time to get rid of Darwin, and Ben obliges, along with Maggie.
To begin their quest, Masterful suggests that Ben create a loser everyman protagonist, who is inspired by a manic pixie dream girl. Ben and Maggie are disgusted, but Darwin is intrigued by the possibility of a world full of loose women, and Masterful switches his affections. It turns out that Masterful’s evil plan is to invade the real world, wipe out creativity forever, and then finally publish his hackneyed graphic novel. With the assistance of the dream girl (Sarah Hoch), a Chicago cop who retires in three days (Gerald Richardson), the Wife of Bath (Kate Garassino), and an assortment of other people dissatisfied with their status as clichés, it’s up to Ben and Maggie to save art from Masterful and Darwin. Could they fall in love along the way?
The supporting cast deserves a huge amount of credit for making The Story of a Story work as well as it does. Except for the four leads, the actors shift between dozens of parts, usually to great hilarity. They are assisted by a vast array of costumes by Kate Setzer Kamphausen, a parade of goofy, two-dimensional set pieces by Greg Pinsoneault, and one of the hardest working backstage crews around. Even in the Chopin’s small basement, the imaginary world feels vast. Much of the fun in the characters comes from their revelation, but Gwinn and Shelton often have a clever point to make about their use, or one other artists will nod in familiarity with.
Max DeTogne has quickly established himself as one of the most talented singers among the up-and-coming actors, and Lauren Paris makes clever, nuanced character choices. Together, they’re quite the appealing couple, even though the music they have to sing is somewhat limited (the band only has four members, one of whom plays keyboard). The most memorable of the show’s pop songs in the anguished power ballad “A Tale No Longer Told,” sung by the Wife of Bath after she and the other outdated stereotypes are banished to the void. Bishop, as Masterful, gets to sing a clever opening number that promises the musical will warm our hearts, which it does, and the music serves mainly to reinforce the show’s jocularity.
Bishop’s comic-villainous performance is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the show. Besides his goofy overture, he also gets a finale in which he proclaims the authors just blew our minds, by discovering clichés can be made successful even if their overdone, as long as they’re used in distinctive ways. Ironically, or perhaps, most appropriately, The Story of a Story (The Untold Story) isn’t even that unique in its approach, or comparatively all that outrageous. The concept of fictional dramatic characters ending up in a shared afterlife and attempting to influence the real world to make entertainment less artful was explored in Jeff Whitty’s 2006 play The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler (and is similar to the Emmy-winning South Park arc Imaginationland from the following year). But those weren’t musicals, and I think Submarine Q. Masterful’s proclamation is tongue-in-cheek. The clichés in this production are indeed used thoughtfully, and like any good parody, The Story of a Story actually is an interesting tale in its own right.
This show has been Jeff recommended.
Playing at The Chopin Theatre downstairs, 1543 W Division Street, Chicago. Tickets are $20; to order, call 312-646-0975 or visit underscoretheatre.org. Performances are through November 8. Running time is two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission.