With its latest project, “The 48-Hour Musicals: Encore!,” The Music Theatre Company, Highland Park’s enterprising operation devoted to “the commissioning of new works and musical experiments,” is perfectly true to its mission.
Think of this program of five short musicals as a collection of widely varied short stories by five different authors united primarily by the fact they have chosen to spin their tales in song. The variety of “voices,” dramatic styles and scenarios turn out to be a great strength. And all five works are deftly directed by Jess McLeod, with fine musical direction by Aaron Benham (and Ryan Brewster on piano), as well as ideally character-defining costumes by Stephanie Cluggish and effective, easily movable sets by Sarah Watkins.
Four of the five works here were initially created in 48 hours, but since refined. The fifth, a world premiere by Billy Corgan, frontman of The Smashing Pumpkins, was created in its own time frame.
‘THE 48-HOUR MUSICALS: ENCORE!’
When: Through Dec. 14
Where: The Music Theatre Company, 1850 Green Bay Rd., Highland Park
Info: (847) 579-4900;
Run time: 85 minutes with no intermission
The best of the bunch — Michael Mahler’s “CHASE” — comes first. Mahler is the multi-talented actor, singer, musician, lyricist and composer whose charming full-length musicals (“Hero,” “How Can You Run With a Shell on Your Back?” and “Knute Rockne: All-American”) deserve far greater attention. Here, in less than 15 minutes, he spins a wistfully comic tale of love and liberation with all the panache of that Harnick and Bock classic, “She Loves Me.”
Mahler introduces us to Shelly (the utterly beguiling Victoria Blade), whose tedious job is to stamp “accept” or “deny” on applications for Chase Bank’s Freedom credit card. Her personal life includes a boyfriend (Patrick Martin) who has hurt her (his efforts to patch things up is denied), and an energetic new suitor, Bernard (stylish Matthew Keffer), who works hard to be “accepted,” even if he offers her freedom from her depressing routine and her only companion, a goldfish. Mahler’s use of repetition is brilliant and hilarious.
J. Oconer Navarro’s “Reception” also is about love and loneliness as one actress (a fervent Rachel Klippel) portrays both Melanie, an anxious bride heading to the altar, and her mother, Elaine. Melanie aches for the presence of her beloved father, who has died, while Elaine longs for her husband in this deftly woven tale of two generations.
Diana Lawrence’s “Postcards from Paris” finds two American travelers in that city of love who begin chatting in a cafe. As it turns out, both have spouses back home, and their marriages are at a crossroads. Paul (Patrick Martin) is a lawyer facing a career crisis he’s afraid to discuss with his wife. June (smart, attractive Emily Berman) is a journalist with a great job offer that will take her away from her husband and stepson. As a dreamy waitress (Blade) moves among the tables, these two engage in much-needed flirtation and confession.
The poetic, expertly rendered “Tereshkova,” the work of Scotty Arnold, is a far more anguished love story. Set against the current anti-gay stance of the Russian government, it looks at the necessarily secretive relationship between two men — Leo (Andrew Mueller) and Peter (Keffer) — who must meet discreetly in a park and even send text messages in subtle code. When one of them sees the name Tereshkova in a message (as in Valentina Tereshkova, the Soviet cosmonaut who was the first woman in space, and who, in 2013, at the age of 76, volunteered to go on a one-way trip to Mars), he riffs on all its possible unspoken meanings.
For “Pretty Persephone,” Corgan has turned to Greek myth and created a ritualistic piece that tells the story of Demeter (Blade), goddess of the harvest and fertility, whose beautiful daughter, Persephone (Berman), is abducted by the dark and wily Hades (Mueller). This is an intriguing if sometimes awkward experiment — more avant-garde opera than rock opera, complete with High Priest (Keffer) and Priestess (Klippel), and a dancing chorus of initiates. The payoff in this 20-minute piece comes with a searing, fiercely believable encounter between mother and daughter. And it makes you think Corgan might pair it with another couple of myths to form a Greek cycle.
For additional information visit www.themusictheatrecompany.org.