Gala launch for FWD, Chicago’s new musical development project

SHARE Gala launch for FWD, Chicago’s new musical development project

The name of the new venture —FWD (as in the “forward” push to develop new musicals) —might be forgettable. But the just-launched venture itself is sure to imprint itself on the consciousness of anyone who loves new musicals and believes that Chicago, with its extraordinary talent pool of musical theater artists, should become a major force in their “discovery, development and delivery.”

To be sure, the new endeavor got off to a dazzling start Monday night at City Winery, where a sold-out, overflow crowd gathered to get a taste of five new musicals that will receive concert readings (most likely at the Winery) between January and May 2015. If all goes as planned, these shows will move into the workshop and production phase, ideally as projects of the city’s established theaters.

FWD is the brainchild of Amber Mak, a Chicago-based actress, choreographer and director who has appeared in a slew of musicals here, collaborated with Rachel Rockwell on such shows as “Xanadu,” “The Sound of Music,” “Sweeney Todd, ” “Shout” and “Ragtime,” and assisted Susan Stroman on the Broadway edition of “Big Fish.” She is being backed by a savvy, wildly enthusiastic collective of “founders,” including Wade Elkins, Karen Multer, Steve Multer, Justin Brill, Scott Sowinsky, Michael Gillis and Missy Greenberg. And if their high-intensity, superbly well-produced launch concert was any indication of things to come, Chicago audiences will be in for quite a jolt in the coming seasons.

The event attracted a starry roster headlined by Tony Award-winner Jessie Mueller (star of Broadway’s “Beautiful — The Carole King Musical”), her supremely talented sister, Abby (now in the Broadway production of “Kinky Boots”), and Karen Mason, the Broadway veteran with Chicago roots. All these women are class acts. But the vast assemblage of performers now working on Chicago stages (backed in most cases by music director-pianist Alex Newkirk) strutted their stuff with absolute Broadway flair, and gave the excerpts from this inaugural season’s five “chosen shows” the finest showcases they could have imagined.

Here is an overview:

“The Black and White Ball,” with book and lyrics by Stephen Cole and music by Todd Ellison: Inspired by the fabled 1966 Black & White Ball thrown by Truman Capote amid the racial tensions in New York City at that time, this is the story of Emma, an African-American girl from Brooklyn who hopes to be invited to the party.Ariana Burk, a 15-year-old Chicago talent (think of a girlish mix of Whitney Houston and Audra McDonald) who has performed on many stages here and also has film and television credits (“Chicago Fire,” “Sirens,” “Prank Stars”on the Disney Channel and more), gave a knockout performance as the young Emma. George Andrew Wolff was a spot-on Capote singing “500 of My Closest Friends.”

“Swift as Desire,” with music by Jeffrey Lunden and book and lyrics by Arthur Perlman: This show, which comes with a distinctive Latin beat, is based on a novel by Laura Esquivel (author of “Like Water for Chocolate”), about a loving and passionate man who has the gift of bringing happiness to everyone but his own wife. Excerpts included an irresistibly rhythmic number, “Letter by Letter,” that captured both the dots and dashes of a telegraph machine, as well as a love song and a sharp encounter between a boss and his two employees.

“Pride & Prejudice — The Musical,” with book, lyrics and music by Lawrence Rush: Jane Austen fans can rejoice as the story of the calamities facing the Bennett family — an early 19th century English household with five girls who must be married off despite the lack of formidable dowries — is set to music. The problems are laid out in “The Wedding Bells.” Abby Mueller made a stellar Elizabeth Bennett, the sister who refuses to marry for money and status (“I Can Wait”), and she was joined by Devin DeSantis as the aloof but honorable Mr. Darcy in a fine duet, “All I See.”

“Exposure,” with music and lyrics by Erik Della Penna, and book by William Brown and Doug Frew (based on a concept by Cathy Nathan): The story of Chad, a young lesbian with a resemblance to James Dean (though actress Jessica Marks reminded me more of Patti Smith) who is homeless on the streets of New York and forges a friendship with a former star photographer. The Mueller sisters joined for a beautiful duet, “Strange Music,” with Jessie strumming her guitar for the plaintive “Indiana Line.”

“Love and Other Fables,” with book by John McMahon and Jay Jeffries, music by McMahon and lyrics by Jeffries: This show, with a verbally brilliant score, is a witty account of the early life of Aesop — the ancient Greek who devised all those enduring fables back in 600 B.C. And guess what? It shows every sign of becoming a surprise hot property. The three songs sampled certainly win my prize for the most astonishing, whip-smart lyrics, with one rapid-fire rhyming line after another perfectly attuned to its properly pronounced syllables. Steven Strafford was a droll, goofy Aesop. Landree Fleming all but stole the show when she teamed with him for “The Song of the Assyrian Sonambulist.” And Heidi Kettenring (who possesses both the legs and the moxie to sing a song titled “Legs”) made the case for chorus girls as a show biz essential.

NOTE: Also on the program was a preview of Karen Mason’s one-woman musical, “Unfinished Business,” about a woman of a certain age still hoping for love. The clarion-voiced actress held the room with formidable emotional force.

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