Better news yet is that I Sing, which ran Off-Broadway for two months in 2001 (but is probably known more for its 2002 concert recording featuring Matt Bogart, Danny Gurwin, Chad Kimball, Lauren Kennedy and Leslie Kritzer), is a good, honest show with resonance for adults who've already passed their thirtieth. Originally written in 1999 by three students at Northwestern University - Eli Bolin (music), Sam Forman (lyrics) and Benjamin Salka (who collaborated on the book with Bolin and Forman) - this is its first full-scale Chicago production since a workshop in 2000. Together with Bohemian Theater Company's The Wild Party, it's one of two Off-Broadway musicals making their Chicago premieres this week.
The worst thing about I Sing – at least in a marketing sense- is its title, which seems to suggest something folky, or maybe a biography of Walt Whitman. It's actually a story of the couplings and upcouplings among five young New Yorkers who comprise two intersecting love triangles over the period of a few weeks. Alan (Feder) is the "cute, but not hot" nice Jewish guy with a crush on his roommate Heidi (Dana Tretta), who's involved (and also living with) Nicky (Cunningham) – the "hot one." After Nicky breaks up with Heidi, he meets and before long, moves in with Pepper (Abby Cucci), a somewhat kinky barmaid with a platonic male roommate of her own, the sexually confused Charley (Danny Bernardo) who thinks he may be in love with Pepper. The story, told entirely through songs, is not patronizing toward its characters or their first attempts at adult relationships. Truth be told, I'd bet that a good number of the audience members over thirty would admit to many of the same struggles.
The writers seem to have the best handle on Alan, and they give him some of the choicest material, which Feder uses to full advantage. In "What Alan Likes," he shows his ability to deliver physical comedy as well as a song, as he .... umm ... "interacts" with Heidi's photo and certain items of her laundry. In a duet with Charley, "Smile Through the Pain," Feder again uses his body impressively, this time to add support to the "straight men can't dance" theory. Also given some meaty stuff to do is Heidi, and Tretta scores playing a range of emotions from hurt at being dumped by Nicky, through body-image angst ("Dressing Room Shuffle"), all the way to grief over the death of a parent in the power ballad, "Daddy's Girl."
The remaining three performers are given a little less to work with. Nicky is not intended to be funny – he's a self-centered jerk, actually, and Cunningham is not afraid to play him as such. He delivers Nicky's surface-level charm as well as his inner insecurities. The strongest singer of the cast, he knocks the eleven o'clock number, "Dancing Alone," way out of the park. Danny Bernardo wins empathetic laughs as the likable, probably-gay Charley. Abby Cucci is an attractive and winning Pepper, but she doesn't quite deliver the nuances the writers have suggested for her. The libretto tells us that Pepper is into bondage, but the overall persona established by Ms. Cucci doesn't quite seem to jibe with that. She, more than the others, has a greater challenge to expand her character beyond what the writers have given her.
The set design by Baron Clay cleverly provides a sort of split-screen view of Pepper and Heidi's apartments, with a seam in the center where the different paint jobs of the walls meet. The seam even splits a sofa in two, with Pepper's upholstery stage right and Heidi's stage left.
Kellie Donnelley is making her directorial debut with this production after serving as assistant director and stage manager for White Horse's Merrily We Roll Along last year. It's an impressive start. Her direction serves the material and performers quite nicely, establishing a clear point of view toward the material and a brisk pace. The singers are supported by a three-piece band and the music direction of Ryan Brewster and Ethan Deppe.
I Sing plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through Saturday, August 13th at the Chicago Dramatists Theater, 1105 W. Chicago Avenue in Chicago. Ticket prices are $20, with students and senior tickets available for $18. Tickets may be reserved by phone at (773) 272-5987, at the door one hour prior to each performance or at www.whitehorsetheatre.com.