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Pictured: Irvine Welsh, Don De Grazia and Tom Mullen. Photo by Jay Kennedy.
Workshop Production: CREATIVES at Chicago Theatre Workshop
By Jude Hansen
The plot centers on eight students in a songwriting class at a progressive university competing for the chance to win $5,000 and the approval of a celebrity judge, an alumnus of the same university now turned successful recording artist. This may not seem like a high stake scenario, and the stakes could be higher but to a graduating student an entrance to the industry could be a potentially life-changing event. What the script could really benefit from, though, is an examination of what distinct and unique drives each of the characters have to win the aforementioned competition. We get that it is nice to win money, but there is a missing piece in what winning would mean to each of them personally. Whether that be vindication, gaining a father’s pride, revenge, a sexual exploit, capacity to pay back drug debts, a political agenda or to be finally taken seriously, these motivating forces need to be identified and intensified to really activate the show. There is also exciting potential to make so much more of the petty jealousies and alliances within the class.
It is abundantly clear from the very first second that some exceptionally talented performers have been assembled for this workshop production, bringing to life covers of alternative rock 80s classics as well as some original songs. The show begins with the cast singing a mesmerizing cover of New Orders’ “The Perfect Kiss.” It’s a beautiful rendition but doesn’t do much more as an exposition other than create a mood. Intertwined within the song is an incoherent and puzzling monologue from Luis (Felip Jorge), which also doesn’t really set up the internal struggle that later we are to believe this character has. There’s nothing particularly brooding or dangerous about this performance or just perhaps no room in the script for this to exist. It needs to, so that we can make sense of his journey and of the whole story.
Then the obnoxious Beiber-esque celebrity is introduced, who I was really disappointed wasn’t more of a Kanye figure, to be honest. Every great villain has something magnetic about them, and it is the love-hate relationship the audience has that sucks them in. Sean O’Neil (Bradford Lund) is just unlikable pop fodder with no endearing qualities. The pre-recorded interview with him, while useful background, does nothing for the momentum of the show. It contradicts the raw and immediate power of the music and rock energy of the show. Why not have the interview as live action on stage?
Nicole Lambert is captivating as Jennifer, a student navigating relationship taboos with her professor. Her characters‘ musical composition, “The ‘El’ Train” is a highlight of the original tracks. It works so well because not only is it a great song but it is so connected with where we understand this character to be in her journey, deepening our understanding of her and progressing the plot.
Rainey Wright, as Ashley, carves out a convincing Paris Hilton type character (right down to adopting a chihuahua) instead of the Amy Schumer type character the script suggests. This choice has far more comic potential, when the uber feminine facade drops to deliver hardcore rap and punk numbers or when she receives an injury in a delicate area. It’s a polarity that could be pushed further for some real comedy gold.
Vasily Deris delivers a star turn as Eric, the Republican propagandist, singing two killer numbers. Sadly the character goes underdeveloped, the writing lacking in the necessary complexity for an audience to be either empathetic or truly loathing of him.
Of the other characters, Jessicas’ (Maggie Ward) journey is the most believable but again the writing only scratches the surface of what this character has to endure, and her story is pieced together from scraps. Paul (Matt Kahler) barely maintains control of the class and comes across as not nearly edgy or revolutionary enough to be an ex-punk rocker. Jeremy (Jake Bradley) and Sheila (Elisa Carlson) are two-dimensional, both suffering from a really underdeveloped script, but it is Marcus (Brian Nelson Jr.) who is resigned to the worst fate with no discernible character traits at all and is all but superfluous to the plot.
There is a conceit that as each original song is delivered, the songwriter joins the performance providing harmonies. It is a brilliant way to immediately inform the audience of who the songwriter is and directly involve them in the emotional content. Sadly these original songs steer away from emotional complexity of the characters but rather make blanket statements, such as “I am a feminist” “I am pro-Trump”. As such, they aren’t really connected in the present moment for the characters journeys, revealing little depth about them or the challenges they are presently facing.
The finale of the show certainly delivers a surprising punch to the guts with very distinctive Irvine Welsh flair, but not in the way you’d suspect (I was concerned at one point that the Welsh trademark graphic grittiness wasn’t going to rear its ugly head but was certainly delighted when it did.).
The show evokes the seductive qualities of the musical Rent, but for a new generation. The similarities are self-evident, both productions contain a ragtag group of bohemian types trying to make ends meet, who sing out their rage and camaraderie against a gritty and unjust world. It’s just a shame that the music and the script are at odds; the script itself falls short as a framework to support all the songs and the songs don’t help to progress the plot.
Having said that, I really loved this production, the music is infectious, the performers are exceptionally gifted, staging and lighting is effective, the concept is strong and the overall energy of the show is undeniable. I’m looking forward to see where the development process of the script takes this show!