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Underscore announces plans for Chicago Musical Theatre Festival

Robert Hager (front, center) with (back, l to r) Michael Warrell, Neal Mayer, Madison Stratton and Charles West in CPA Productions’ "DAPHNE’S SUNSET "(previously performed as Spot on the Wall) at the New York Musical Festival. | Photo by Jenny Anderson.

First came the push for new plays, as every Chicago theater sought to capture the next exciting playwright-on-the-rise. Now, it appears, the push is on for this city to become a hotbed of activity in the development of new musicals.

Underscore Theatre Company, whose bold new production of “Haymarket: The Anarchist’s Songbook,” opened at The Edge Theater here earlier this week, is among those enthusiastically engaged in the process. Founded in 2011, it is a team of producing artists “dedicated to exploring stories of power and resonance through a musical lens, fostering the development of new musicals, and bolstering Chicago’s role as a national leader in musical theater.” And it has just announced its third annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival, to run Aug. 9-28 in Victory Gardens Upstairs Studio Theater at 2433 N. Lincoln.

This year’s festival will feature 14 new musical productions, with each show receiving four performances. The full schedule of dates and times will be announced soon. Single tickets/festival passes will go on sale July 1 at www.cmtf.org.

To be sure, the themes of the musicals to be showcased run the gamut —  from a Righteous Brothers tribute,  to re-imaginings of Greek mythology, to a celebration of Jewish cuisine and culture by way of gefilte fish. They were selected from more than 60 submissions, with nine of the shows world premieres, two shows featured at the New York Musical Festival and two workshop productions.

This year, Underscore is partnering with CPA Theatricals and Kokandy Productions for “The Bridge Program,” in which composing teams are paired with an established theater company that oversees casting and rehearsals to give writers and composers a sense of what is involved in the production of a new work. Bailiwick Chicago, which is presenting one of this year’s workshop productions, also will provide equipment and additional sponsorship for the festival.

“This year, we’re providing composing teams more opportunities than ever before to connect with the musical theater powerhouses of Chicago,” said Festival director and Underscore Theatre Company artistic director Alex Higgin-Houser in a prepared statement. “We’ve also welcomed productions that have previously succeeded at the New York Musical Theatre Festival and now are looking to bridge the gap into regional productions so that their shows can have a life beyond the first presentation. We are also thrilled to work with Victory Gardens to combine our similar missions of producing groundbreaking new work.”

Here is an overview of the musicals as announced/summarized by the festival:

THE BRIDGE PROGRAM:

DAPHNE’S SUNSET,” presented by CPA Theatricals, with book and lyrics by Kevin Jaeger and music by Alex Mitchell (previously performed as “Spot on the Wall” at the New York Musical Festival): This is the story of one family’s search for expression and empathy inside a museum where Paul Hunter, a talented photographer, is about to have an exhibition of his work. When his artwork focuses on his mother’s recent lost battle with cancer, his family finds out how difficult it can be to face your pain and your past and look for beauty.

“FLIGHT,” presented by Kokandy Productions , world premiere with book, music and Llrics by Michael Potsic. Based on the Greek myth “The Flight of Icarus,” this musical follows Daedalus, his wife Aeden, and their son Icarus as they learn that to truly live and love comes with great risk.

FESTIVAL PRODUCTIONS :

 “PLANTED,” presented by Rogue Elephant Productions, a world premiere co-conceived by Christopher Pazdernik and Jeff Bouthiette, with music and lyrics by Bouthiette, and additional lyrics by Rebekah Walendzak. This is a contemporary song-cycle exploring relationships of modern-day queer men. Five men – include including a trans-man, a Latino-American and a bisexual – navigate through the minefields of dating, marriage, separation and independence.

TRIBULATION: THE MUSICAL,” presented by Higgin’s Beach Productions, with book and lyrics by Molly Miller and music by Brad Kemp. It’s the end of the world… and you still need a job in this musical that follows Genevieve, a would-be poet who ends up at a crappy desk job after she realizes that being left behind in the rapture doesn’t mean the rent isn’t due. Prophets, whores, middle managers, grad students and delivery guys alike all struggle to  prevent the Apocalypse in this comic take on the Bible’s Book of Revelation.

“THAT LOVIN’ FEELIN”,” presented by Off Broadway Dinner Theatres, Inc., a world premiere with book by James A. Zimmerman and musical arrangements by J. Michael Roy. This “musical biography” of The Righteous Brothers chronicles the story and songs of the duo that defined “Blue-Eyed Soul” for a generation as it follows two young dreamers from Orange County as they break into R&B, find enormous success and later enjoy a lifetime collaboration and friendship. This tribute to the unique genius of Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield features more than 20 hits including “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” “Justine,” “Unchained Melody,” and of course, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”

“MATING,” presented by Jeffery Lyle Segal, a world premiere with book, music and lyrics by Segal. The tragicomedy of modern romance is celebrated with laughter and tears in this new musical revue. In its first act, the performers sing mostly comedic complaints about the difficulty of finding “the one.” In the second act, the couples join and find happiness, but those love songs are followed by songs of breaking up, with their accompanying emotional pain. In the end, the couples reunite, and celebrate in love and unity.

“MILL HOUSE: MY LIFE IS A COUNTRY SONG ,” a world premiere presented by New American Folk Theatre, with book, music and lyrics by Anthony Whitaker. In this story of Donna, a woman starting life over after leaving a long-term abusive relationship, she has rented the mill house and is trying to begin a new life while trying to understand the years of mental and physical violence she endured. It becomes a story of forgiveness; forgiving herself for allowing herself to be victimized, her family for turning their heads, and even her ex-husband.

“PEN,”  a world premiere with book by DC Cathro and music and lyrics by Leo Schwartz. Still reeling from a recent breakup and looking for a distraction, Paul starts corresponding with Rod, a pen pal in another state. Meanwhile, Paul’s co-worker, Lee, is in the planning stages of her wedding. Soon, what began as an innocent flirtation evolves into an emotional attachment that neither of them expected. The problem? Paul’s ex, Grayson, returns to try to win him back. The bigger issue? Paul’s pen pal is a prisoner, incarcerated for 13 more years.

 “GEFILTE FISH CHRONICLE,” with a book by Matty Selman and Iris Burnett and music and lyrics by Selman, previously performed at the New York Musical Festival. The last of the colorful Dubroff sisters, Goldie, has just passed away and her granddaughter, an aspiring actress, leaves for Hollywood instead of staying home and having the traditional family Passover with her mother. When the family photographer magically appears after being gone for 50 years, the story turns heartwarming and funny.

“STALKER: THE MUSICAL,” presented by RPG Productions, a world premiere with concept by David Russell, book and lyrics by Russell and Alex Giles, and music by Andy Peterson, previously performed at the New York International Fringe Festival 2015.  In a dystopian world, where love is completely outlawed, “stalking’” has emerged as a replacement for relationships, and people adhere to the concept of “Look, but don’t touch.” When a stranger from another world arrives, society is thrown into chaos, not least because this stranger introduces a novel concept: that of love.
WILL THE CIRCLE,”  a world premiere with book by L.C. Bernadine and music and lyrics by Kevin Welch. Four people at a block party – apartment-dwellers in a world of homeowners – are drawn to each other because of their status as invisible renters, their mutual penchant for a kind of loopy conversational improv, and their desire for anything that resembles security at a time when the threat of violence simmers at the edge of every day and every horizon.

 “THE TRANSCIVILITY OF ALBERT CASHIER,” a world premiere presented by Chicago Commercial Collective and Keaton Wooden, created by Jay Paul Deratany, with a book by Jay Paul Deratany, and music and lyrics by Joe Stevens. An exploration of the life and story of Albert Cashier, a Civil War soldier with a secret that resonates with issues in the public eye 150 years later.

WORKSHOP PRODUCTIONS:

“NUMBERS NERDS,” presented by CPA Theatricals, a world premiere withook by Laura Stratford, lyrics by Alex Higgin-Houser and music by David Kornfeld.  Against a backdrop of drama queens-turned-janitors, loose ferrets and college pressure, a diverse (almost) all-girls high school Math Team must band (and sing) together to raise the money to go to the national competition, surmount their differences to win, and figure out if unicorns are extinct.

“JENNA ROXIE AND THE CHURCH OF MODERN LOVE,” presented by Bailiwick Chicago, with book, music and lyrics by Ethan Krupp and David Reddyk, directed by Jon Martinez. When the inventor Dole Roxy created the world’s most popular cough syrup, he collected a group of people who drink it so regularly that he began a commune, focused on music, love and drinking the syrup. When he passes away, his spirit is “transmigrated” into his newborn daughter, Jenna, making her the new leader.