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Chicago by John Olson

The Guide to Being Single
Underscore Theatre Company


Sarah Danielle Hoch, and Jomar Ferreras
Here in the city of broad shoulders, where we like call ourselves the theatre capital of America, new plays are staged just about every week. New musicals? Maybe just a handful a year—and a good share of them coming from this young theatre company that focuses almost exclusively on new musicals. Over the past three seasons, they've given us three fully staged pieces plus a festival of new musicals.

Walking into a world premiere, there's always hope for something great, but a more realistic hope is to find something with promise. That's what we see with Underscore's newest effort, called The Guide to Being Single. The promise is found in the very bright, smart score of music and lyrics by Alexi Kovin. According to an interview provided in the press materials, the score began as a song cycle, which Kovin later developed as a book musical with librettist Kaitlin Gilgenbach. The Guide to Being Single would need some serious retooling to work as full musical, but a number of Kovin's songs work very well indeed.

An audience member coming into the show cold is initially misled a bit about what the show is going to be about. There is, in fact, a book in the show called "The Guide to Being Single." After an appealing overture, the ensemble performs an opening number called "The Rules" (song titles here are best guesses—a song list wasn't provided) in which cast members cite various rules from the book. We see some short scenes showing some of the nightmares of young urban single life—the clingy guy a girl may meet in a bar that won't take a hint and go away, for example. We learn about rules like "never give out your name," "don't give your number," "don't sleep with anyone more than once," and only gradually get the picture that this is going to be about a particular philosophy of being single. The guide here is not just how to be single, but how to stay single and love it—finding hookups for sex and using friends for friendship, but never, ever combining physical intimacy with romance or commitment. Not a bad concept, and it could potentially go somewhere new. Most dramatic explorations of the single life operate from the premise that a coupled life is far better, and is the goal of all singles. Looking at the aforementioned vignettes, you might wonder if this is going to be a series of episodic sketches illustrating the book's tenets. That could make for a fun 60 or 90 minutes, but as the characters keep coming back we get the idea: this is truly a book musical and we're going to follow these characters on a journey. And guess where that journey goes? To four singles finding love and pledging commitment as they pair up to become two couples in a rom-com plot so traditional we expect Jennifer Aniston or Katherine Heigl to enter stage left.

Well, a good rom-com ain't all bad, either. Nor would one that takes a gently satirical look at the type of people it depicts. For the former, we need some people we care about; for the latter, we need a more insightful and truthful look at the behaviors they want to satirize. And Gilgenbach's book falls uncomfortably in between. We can give her some credit for taking a critical stance toward young professionals in their twenties. Alcoholism, narcissism, and a general reluctance to grow up figure in the characters here. Zack (Jonas Davidow) and Heather (Miki Byrne) have been dating for two years and Zack's about to pop the questions when he runs into old buddy Derek (Jomar Ferreras) on his way to meet Heather. They stop for a few beers, which turn into a few more and Zack arrives drunk and two hours late to what was supposed to be his proposal dinner. They break up, with the encouragement of Heather's best friend Jackie (Sarah Danielle Hoch), a confirmed proponent of the stay-single-at-any-cost philosophy espoused in that guide. The next night, Jackie meets Derek, who is a major league baseball pitcher just transferred to the Chicago Cubs from the New York Mets. We're told Derek shares Jackie's ideas about commitment (they're against it), though we don't see it. He falls for Jackie fast and hard. She resists, but you can bet they're going to end up together, and in the sort of makeup scene that's really made for the movies.

The action is set in Chicago's Wrigleyville neighborhood, which in the summer and much of the rest of the year looks like Bourbon Street north—a fantasyland of some of the biggest, best college-type bars imaginable, for those who've received their diplomas but aren't ready to leave the campus lifestyle behind just yet. The set by Ryan Emens replicates signs of some of these establishments, which gets the show off to a good start. Including a character who plays for the Cubs is a nice touch as well. I wish the writers had dug deeper into the Wrigleyville scene, though, making it even more specific rather than just an example of a big-city young-single neighborhood. That's one of the things most of the best musicals do: take us to a place and time, whether Camelot, Oz, Siam or Oklahoma. Why not Wrigleyville? Though I live just beyond Wrigleyville (and am even farther beyond the age of who frequent those bars), I'd enjoy the chance to see what goes on behind those bar doors and see how different or similar it may be to the Chicago singles scene of the 1980s.

If Kovin and Gilgenbach stay with their idea of following these four characters, I'd urge them to dig deeper. Take a look at people they know; give use an unstinting look that goes beyond surface level observations. Kovin's lyrics are a good start—with lines like "don't even call, don't even text, don't even talk about what's coming next" they get at the mindset of twentyish singles, and the lyrics are set to some bright, jazzy and swingy melodies. Gilgenbach also contributes some funny secondary characters, like a variety of goofy cab drivers (all played by the goofy Chad Michael Innis) and some ditzy young ladies played by Kelsey Burd and Juanita Anderson. Director Laura Stratford and choreographer Jon Martinez keep the action fast and visually interesting, but somehow it doesn't all jell into a vivid point of view at this specific time and place. The writers, particularly the bookwriter Gilgenbach, would do well to take more of their inspiration from the neighborhood around them rather than the nearest Cineplex.

The Guide to Being Single will play through December 7, 2014, at Collaboraction Theatre's Room 300, 1570 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. For tickets and show times, visit www.underscoretheatre.com.


Photo: Underscore Theatre Company

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-- John Olson



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