The Chicago Theatre Workshop opened its inaugural season with the musical Wicked City at the Edge Theatre at 5154 N. Broadway in Edgewater. If the quality of this production is any indication, Chicago Theatre Workshop is going to be a fine addition to this city’s talented theatrical companies.
That said, this production isn’t without its challenges. But let’s start with the good.
Wicked City is a fun premise, a comedic send-up of film noir classics complete with rapid-fire dialogue heavy on antique slang and the requisite plot centering on a damsel in distress. The costumes are period and well done. The actors are clearly having fun, which encourages the audience to have fun as well. They blast out of the gate on the strength of Rashada Dawan’s incredible pipes and the whole cast rises to match.
They sing, act and dance the hell out of this show. Everyone has a terrific voice, everyone commands the stage when they should and becomes background when they should. Lauren Roesner, as Jo, has a ton of heavy lifting to do both with songs and dialogue and could not have been better or more fun with her ridiculous pastiche of every femme that ever fataled. Javier Ferreira as Eddie, the hardboiled private eye, erred on the side of puppyhood instead of Sam Spade, but the script called for that. He sang incredibly well. At a couple of points a few props got beyond everyone’s control and the actors turned what could have been mistakes into hilarious comedic bits instead – When Jason Richards’ policeman’s hat rolled into the audience and when Dana Tretta’s gag fell off. That’s thinking on the fly and the whole cast rolled with it and turned lemons into lemonade.
Every actor was great and they can’t be commended highly enough. The musical direction, the choreography and blocking is clever, fast-paced and works as well. The set design and audio-visual elements are great and set the tone for the whole show.
There were a few technical problems. The score was too loud and overwhelmed the voices in several key moments. It was too loud in a show where everyone is wearing a headset mic. This is a problem and the fault of the sound design. I hope they get it worked out. Same with lighting. You should not have your lead actress doing a big scene standing two feet behind the spotlight when she’s supposed to be center stage at a club. The spot should be on her. There were SEVERAL instances of this during this show.
But this is a musical. And if you don’t have a great book and music, no matter what you do as an actor or singer, it’s not going to be a great show. And sadly, this thing with so much promise doesn’t live up to it. And the sad part is that it comes so close in some areas.
Let’s start with the dialogue and lyrics. Chad Beguelin has clearly watched some film noir and read some hardboiled detective novels of the era. He’s also probably watched Chinatown a few too many times. The thing is littered with fun period slang. And then it goes for every cheap Private Dick joke that you can imagine. In fact, it has so much fun winking at itself that during the 39th aside about film noir, you get kind of sick of it. We get it. Please stop hitting us over the head.
Comedy only works when you play it straight and with a ton of conviction. This show could have worked like the old Batman TV show from 1966 works in all its outrageous campy glory. And it would have truly been hilarious, as it does contain some laugh-out-loud funny lines, if you stopped breaking the third wall and telling the audience how funny it was all the time. This is one huge fault of the book. Which, as I said, contains laugh-out-loud funny lines the audience loved.
The other fault is the fact that you can see the plot coming from about 15 minutes in. It is obvious. It is tiresomely obvious with the heavy-handed foreshadowing. We have all seen this story before. It is LITERALLY a tale as old as theatre, itself. I liked it better in the first version because the cast didn’t keep telling me to like it and doing winky asides.
Clearly Matthew Sklar has listened to a lot of period music. He gets the instrumentation just right. He gets the style. And then he forgets to write any songs with memorable melodies. You don’t have to be Andrew Lloyd Weber with a single leitmotif that drives everybody nuts, but you need to think about verse chorus verse a little.
Think of all the great musicals of the 1940s. Stuff by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lorenz Hart, Kurt Weill, Ira Gershwin, Moss Hart, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and so many more. What is the FIRST thing you think of with all of them? Songs. Songs you can sing right now. Songs with clear melodies and choruses you left the theatre humming. Songs you could pull out of the show and have a hit with. Songs Frank Sinatra would want to cover on his new album. Songs like that.
There is not a hummable tune here. There is some great pyrotechnic singing that the cast pulls off well. There’s music in service to storytelling and it all forwards the plot, there are even bits of melodies that come back to be heard again with reprises or mashups. But every song is maybe half a good song. Just as it gets going and you think you’re going to get a real 1940s style musical theatre song, he has to add another bridge or lead up to some vocal pyrotechnic, and then maybe change up the melody again and never go back to what should probably be the chorus or not just let a song be a song. It’s maddening.
This is a fault of a lot of modern musical theatre, this overthinking and over-complexity in the score. Everybody wants to be Stephen Sondheim, but nobody is. Just write a song. Your audience will thank you for it. And this book is the perfect opportunity to hearken back to the great song days of yesteryear. You’re doing a period piece. Look at what made that period great and go with it. Otherwise you just get left in the dark.
Wicked City has a ton of promise. It has a hugely talented cast serving a flawed script and score. But if this is the caliber of talent that Chicago Theatre Workshop means to bring into play, they are well worth watching.
All photography provided by the production and taken by Jay Kennedy.