By Joe Iconis & John Simpkins
Directed by Matt Dominguez
Produced by Refuge Theatre Project
At Exit Chicago, Chicago
A Theatrical Rock Concert—For Those Who Love Musical Theater
The members of Refuge Theatre Project love musical theatre, no doubt about it: if their mission statement doesn’t convince you, seeing Artistic Director Christopher Pazdernik bouncing up and down with excitement in the front row surely proves these folks are in it heart and soul. Need more proof? Their current production is a “theatrical rock concert” consisting of 19 songs by Joe Iconis, according to them “possibly the best and most famous musical theater songwriter you’ve never heard of.” Whether you have or (like me) have not heard of Mr. Iconis, now is your chance: though it’s absent any narrative arc, this rock concert does include a majority of catchy and melodic songs that might just make you bounce to the beat, too.
Wikipedia would have us believe Things to Ruin is “A rock concert about young people hell bent on destruction and creation,” but it’s unlikely Wikipedia saw the production I did. For me, at its worst Things to Ruin is about a group of former high school theatre nerds (I use the term affectionately), now grown into struggling actors and wayward young adults, who hang around a bar exorcising the ghosts of their Emo years while bemoaning the failures of their present. At its best, the show sometimes manages to transcend the hallmark sound of musical theatre, relay a sentiment not entirely infantile, and actually land in genre (though typically it does not stray far from the roots of Rock). At its best, Things to Ruin is very good; at its worst, it’s mawkishly sentimental. The good news: it’s more often at its best.
Lacking an overarching storyline, Things to Ruin might seem like a musical revue—which it is not. Each song—delivered as a Company or individually—more or less tells its own story, or else communicates a sentiment all its own. They tie together thematically (as I’ve suggested), but not even the songs delivered by the same singer seem connected, integrally.
For example, the opening number, “I Was Born This Morning (The Cicada Songs),” is delivered as a Company and conveys a prototypical punk anthem of ngst (the closest we get to our Wikipedia synopsis). From there, however, we move into a more melancholic song, sung by Kedgrick Pullums Jr., in which he expresses that the presence of pain is the only reminder that he is alive.
Not everything is so dark, though; in fact, most of the songs have an ironic, self-conscious aspect to them, or else are at least humorous. The third song, “Nerd Love,” is sung by Thomas Squires and Madison Kauffman: Thomas is basically trying to pick Madison up at the bar by calling her out on her nerdiness, which she casually attempts to deny, but which, as a nerd himself, he’s already spotted. Then we have songs like the fourth song, “The War Song,” sung by Jeff Meyer, whose ironic sentiment of choosing to go to war for lack of anything better to believe in betrays an inner pathos that, if not moving, nevertheless offers an interesting depth.
One question I had coming in to see the show was, if there are only songs and no story, where does the “theater” come in? Answer: the “theater” comes in in the performance of the songs and their transitions. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say each singer embodies a “character,” some do convey a discernable “attitude.” The “attitude,” however, is anything but consistent—except for Jeff Meyer, an apparently insouciant barkeep, whose natural charisma and theatrical verve is eye-catching (though the eyeliner helps).
Refuge Theatre Project is ridiculously passionate about musical theatre—so passionate they’ve staged this current production in the loft of Exit Chicago, which professes itself as “Chicago’s Original Punk Bar since 1981.” The venue’s ambience fits well with the feel of the production. If I were more of a fan of contemporary musical theatre, I think the show would have been a night to remember. Even still, Things to Ruin had enough melodic pull (if not lyrical substance) to keep me engaged and tapping my feet. If you’re lukewarm on the concept, I’d recommend checking out some of Iconis’ music online, and perhaps giving it a try: the price is right, and, worst case, you’ve got a catchy song stuck in your head until bedtime.
Playing at Exit Chicago, 1315 W North Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $20. Performances are Fridays thru Sundays at 7:30 p.m. through June 18th. Running time is 90 minutes with 10-minute intermission.