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Love in the Middle Ages
Village Players Theatre

Love in the Middle Ages
Joanna Riopelle and Scott Urban
For decades, middle-aged audiences have been flocking to musicals which by and large deal with stories of young love that leads to first marriages. Middle-aged romance, if treated at all, is typically relegated to the second leads (think Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz) in Cabaret). First time theater writer Scott Urban turned that paradigm around when he decided to write a musical inspired by his life as a middle-aged man living with two roommates of similar circumstances. Here, the middle-aged couples are the protagonists and the twenty-something characters the comic relief. Though it's clearly a first-time effort, it contains a lot bright moments and sincerity along with some considerable problems.

Urban and composer Bob Solone have provided a number of quite entertaining songs on the perils of middle-aged dating, and just middle-aged life in general. Urban's lyrics are clever, though they might be faulted for over-use of contemporary catch-phrases, as in a song apparently titled "Been There, Done That" (no song list was provided in the program). Urban's lyrics and dialogue sound like people talk, and can be credited for their lack of pretension if not their poetry. Give him credit as well for not writing lyrics with predictable rhymes. Solone's attractive melodies have simple, pleasant and memorable hooks. Most of Solone and Urban's songs are comedy numbers like the ones you might hear at a piano bar or cabaret, along with a few good ballads, like "I Don't Like Sleeping Alone" for widower Joe in which he explains his reasons for going back into the dating scene.

The authors might have a stronger piece if it were performed as a revue. Urban's book is as close to concept musical as it is to book musical, anyway. Urban plays Brad, an overweight single man comfortable and successful in the dating scene on the strength of his wry sense of humor and easygoing nature. He tutors widower Joe (Guy Klinzing) and divorced shoe salesman Larry (Jeff Jones) in dating skills during their get-togethers at a suburban Chicago pub called McGuffin's, depicted spiffily in Bill Jenkins' realistic set. There, they practice their skills on a similarly archetypical trio of available women (Danon Dastugue, Joanna Riopelle and Michelle McKenzie-Voight). The script is empathetic to them all, but the author unsurprisingly seems to understand the men better. The relationships among the six evolve over several months and are observed by the young employees of the bar (Jeny Wasilewski, Patrick Tierney and Sarah Pitard), one of whom (Wasilewski) is a Ph.D. student who uses her observations of the six as the basis for her dissertation.

Urban takes this Mamma Mia!-like diagram of six middle-aged love-seekers in directions that aren't nearly as predictable as the structure might lead you to expect, and he avoids easy resolutions. He also seems to have clear ideas of who the characters are, and a significant back story of each is provided, but they still aren't given enough of a journey to be satisfying as drama. The scenes seem to have been written to set up the songs rather than the songs having been written to amplify emotions in the scene. For example, one of the women complains that her life story is like a bad country song, and then guess what happens? They break into a country song parody.

With the young bar employees as a contrast to the older characters, the author's points-of-view that the greater life experience and wisdom of age are to savored and that life should continue to include risk and discovery at any age are valid and sure to be endorsed among audiences. Urban wears his heart on his sleeve, though, and the piece tends to make the points too early and too directly. The situations set up some entertaining numbers, though. Highlights for the full ensemble are "Rock and Roll Is In My Soul," in which in the olders affirm the music of their youth to the younger bar employees, and "Things Were Better They Way They Were," a salute to a time before the technology revolution when "my space" referred to privacy rather social networking. These numbers are given some nice 'dancing- for- non-dancer' moves by choreographer Christopher Pazdernik.

The material would certainly work a lot better with a stronger cast. The performers are all likable enough—they have an easygoing charm and seem to understand their characters#151;but, with the exceptions of Wasilewski and Pitard, the performances have a sort of community theater stiffness that's below par for Chicago non-Equity theater. Actors with greater comic skills could have better landed a lot of Urban's jokes. Wasilewski does a nice job as the barmaid/doctoral student, though, and Pitard, in a fairly standard issue Valley Girl character, has a short monologue late in act two that delightfully reinforces George Bernard Shaw's opinion that youth is wasted on the young.

The piece has an air of resignation and acceptance#151;that the six will never regain their youth and that any lovers they find will inevitably be imperfect#151;that is reflected throughout in the writing and the direction by Jason A. Fleece. That's a valid enough point of view, but it leads to a mostly monotonous level of low-key energy throughout that makes the two and one-half hour piece feel long. For this to work as a full-length musical, it would need more of an arc and sense of discovery for the characters. What's here now, though, could make for an entertaining 90-minute revue in the hands of the right performers, and its slightly more male-centric point of view could make it an easier sell to middle-aged husbands than Menopause! The Musical.

Love in the Middle Ages will be performed Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through September 21, 2008 at the Village Players Performing Arts Center, 1010 W. Madison, Oak Park, IL. Tickets available at www.village-players.org or by calling 866-764-1010.


Photo: Maggie McKenna

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-- John Olson



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