Despite its Afrocentric title, “Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?” is more MSNBC than BET, flitting from issue to issue and examining each with a progressive bent. The new revue at Second City’s e.t.c. space relies on a dynamic cast and some effective stagecraft to make up for premises that don’t always pan out.
‘Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?’ Recommended When: Open run Where: Second City e.t.c, 230 W. North Tickets: $23-$48 Info: (312) 337-3992; www.secondcity.com Run time: 1 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission
The writer-performers are a mix of the new and newer: Back after their strong work in last year’s “Apes of Wrath” are Carisa Barreca, Eddie Mujica and Tim Ryder, now joined by Lisa Beasley, Scott Morehead and Rashawn Nadine Scott. They are not content to merely amuse, aiming their focus on subjects from Cuba to NFL concussions to those wigged-out Sia dancers. Chicago controversies also flare up in a show that never depicts Rahm Emanuel but keeps the mayor in mind as a CPS teacher (Mujica) and his student (Beasley) rap about their educational woes, and a cloaked “Star Wars” geek (Ryder) realizes his support of a lakefront George Lucas museum makes him more Evil Empire than Rebel Alliance.
When a well-meaning Disneyland staffer (Ryder) decides to launch a discussion of race with his disbelieving colleague (Scott), their edgy colloquy is effectively balanced by their periodic pauses to don Goofy and Pluto heads and wave at a passing train. Another bit of racial commentary comes as a surprise when the madcap antics of some Keystone Kops turn abruptly, gut-punchingly tragic.
The actors even touch on the virtually untouchable as they play visitors to the 9/11 memorial recounting their memories from that day. It takes a rock-solid concept to justify going there in a comedy show, and the one here — that everyone has a mistaken recollection — doesn’t cut it.
A different sort of misstep comes when a sanctimonious Christian bookseller (Morehead) uses religious freedom laws to turn away customers outside the faith. As one (Beasley) counters him with scripture, the preachy exchange seems less about laughs than about giving left-leaning audiences the warm fuzzies.
But when the cast tosses the headlines aside and gets goofy, a lot of fun ensues. A teleporting scene that keeps morphing one cast member into another allows for some funny ribbing of everyone’s look, as when Barreca is described as “1990s Gwen Stefani.” And Ryder, Beasley and Scott live it up as the bitchy inner voices tormenting a woman on a first date, although the scene cops out with an ending that punctures the whole premise. (And for some reason the script milks the name of its setting, a bar called Tequila Mockingbird, when that gag already was the name of a pioneering ImprovOlympic team back in the ’80s.)
Director Anthony LeBlanc, a performer himself from two recent mainstage shows, has assembled a show with a lot of visual pop, notably the rambunctious New Orleans funeral parade that mourns a dead cell phone and the battle of armed warriors led by a worrywart (Mujica). The three women do onstage costume changes — stripping down to shaping undergarments and covering up with their comfy home clothes — to illustrate their techno song about the artifice of beauty.
And man, does this cast like to sing. They sing as roommates lamenting their parting. They sing little ditties setting the next scene. And the ladies even sing directions to the bathrooms to set up intermission.
If being part of the show is your nightmare, steer clear of the front row, from which the cast selects a few helpers to play the mirror images of suicidal patients. Later a couple more audience members are singled out as targets for Barreca and Ryder’s stalking, the results of their info-digging put on full, privacy-violating display.
The new cast members all make an ample impact, although Beasley’s smoldering talents don’t go on full display until late in the first act. Morehead is at his best paying insouciant, notably as a brat interrogating his mom’s date, and Scott carries a commanding, belting presence. Of the big showcase moments, the standouts are Barreca’s turn as a Ukrainian sex worker cheerily recounting her horrible past as she seduces, and Mujica as a cellphone taunting its owner, sort of a techie follow-up to his hilarious robot boyfriend in “Apes.” (He also gets to play a baby growing into a parent-hating teen and beyond, a bit of “Cats in the Cradle” mime without much point beyond showing off his considerable physical prowess.)
They’re compelling performers who know their way around a stage — and to a restroom.