Entertainment » Theatre

'Verböten' Impresses in World Premiere Production

by Christine Malcom
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Feb 4, 2020
A scene from "Verböten," the musical that runs through March 8 at the Chopin Theatre
A scene from "Verböten," the musical that runs through March 8 at the Chopin Theatre  

For its second main stage production of the 2019—2020 season, The House Theatre of Chicago mounts the world premiere of "Verböten," a semi-autobiographical musical based on composer/lyricist Jason Narducy's Evanston-based teen punk band. The show itself boasts music that's both memorable and, for the most part, eminently listenable on its own, and the production is impressive, elevating a story with some notable weaknesses beyond a simple nostalgia trip through its design and exceptional performances.

In his program notes, Narducy charts the course of the show backward in time from a 2014 episode of "Sonic Highways" that Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters made for HBO. Grohl, the cousin of the real-life Verböten's lead singer, attended a band rehearsal in his teens that left enough of an impression that he interviewed her and Narducy for a Chicago episode. This sparked the interest of playwright Brett Neveu and led to the show's five-year development process in conjunction with The House Theatre's artistic director (and the director of the show), Nathan Allen.

The play is set dead center in the Reagan Era, which is brought expertly to life by both Izumi Inaba's costumes and Lee Keenan's scenic design, which is covered, wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling in that '80s carpet that might be shades of brown or no color at all. With the audience on risers V-shaped around the stage, the set makes use of all available space.

The main stage is raised a little more than a yard above the floor, domestic spaces (including captain's chairs at the kitchen table, and a couch with wooden arms and that brown floral pattern you know you know) down center, up left, and down right, and a narrow catwalk with a set of pull-down attic stairs that grants access from the stage, as well as well as via the backstage area up left. Beneath this the drum kit is set up behind Plexiglas shields, and the adjacent areas house amps and other equipment for what is an appropriately loud show.

The action takes place in the homes of the four band members over the space of a few days leading up to a gig at the Cubby Bear. We experience the typical and not-so-typical problems of Jason, Tracey, Chris, and Zack as they interact with their single parents, stepparents, adoptive parents, and kicked-around-by-life adult siblings, finding solace, support and well-warranted rage in one another and in music.

Despite the play's focused time frame and the specificity of the plot mechanic, the story is quite impressionistic. Although this works well in a number of instances, there are times when the tone is difficult to grab hold of. For example, in an early interaction, Jason and his father are clearly at odds, though Jason has chosen not to move away with his mother and her new husband.

At the time, the conflict seems typical of any number of father-son relationships, particularly post-divorce. However, when their situation turns violent at the end of Act I, the conversation in which his father asks Jason if he will tell his mother that they have been fighting reads as decidedly more sinister. On a related note, whereas Jason's peers vow that they will keep the situation quiet "unless he hits you again" reads realistically, the reaction of Zack's impossibly dorky, but deeply caring father to Jason's highly visible injuries isn't communicated as effectively.

Bearing in mind the play's temporal setting, the problem is partly related to a not entirely successful translation to the 21st century when (hopefully) this kind of violence would do more than raise an eyebrow. However this also raises the issue of the band members' ages. From the program notes, the story takes place when the members of Verböten are still middle schoolers. Various indicators suggest that Neveu has simply added a few years to the characters for ease of translation, but the inclusion in Act II of camcorder footage of their eleven-year-old selves performing runs counter to this and pulls the audience out of the moment.

On a related note, although the music is excellent on the whole, here, too, there are some cracks in the foundation. Most of the numbers admirably walk the line between serving the show and standing alone as respectable vintage punk songs, a few lean distractingly hard into the "musical format." Tracey's family's "You Belong" song is jarringly expository. Chris's Sister's song "I Can't Count on Love" could have fit the mold of the majority of the show admirably, but again, its bridge is so specific and directive, that it reads as a lack of confidence that the audience hasn't followed an already straightforward character.

Performance-wise, the show is astonishing in calling for not just singers and actors, but accomplished, no-faking-it musicians who are often multi-instrumentalists. The cast here is more than equal to the task.

In the core cast Kieran McCabe's performance as Jason is simply terrific. He admirably carries difficult work on the guitar, and though he is more than a strong singer, he spends the balance of his vocal performance on conveying Jason's reluctance to be front and center. Whatever the play's issues with locating its characters solidly in an age and time period, his rendition of Jason as a young man who has withdrawn out of self-preservation, but who desperately wants to connect, is painfully resonant.

In particular, he is just wonderful opposite both Jimmy Chung, who plays Jason's stepfather, and Marc A. Rogers, who plays Zack's dad. Chung and Rogers, in turn, give amazing three-dimensional performances that draw authentic laughs, rather than fishing for them. Chung, in particular, weathers the transition from named role to on-stage musician admirably.

Matthew Lunt (Chris) and Jeff Kurysz (Zack) are also musically outstanding, and develop characters that are wholly distinct from one another. As Tracey, Krystal Ortiz does an admirable job throughout, but the writing for the character is rather awkward, particularly early on. Ortiz more than finds her stride, though, in the second act as she channels any number of punk's leading women.

In the supporting cast, Jenni M. Hadley and Paul Brian Fagen do an excellent job in roles that are more straightforwardly comic. Hadley spouts pop psychology with the best of them, but also finds genuine moments of tenderness and frustration with Tracey and with her husband.

As Jason's dad and Chris's sister, respectively, Ray Rehberg and Marika Mashburn have the most problematic material to work with. Rehberg does a more than respectable job having to move from extremely intense moments as Jason's father to a background player on guitar. Mashburn has some unrelenting, thanklessly negative material to work with, and she wisely embraces it. Unfortunately, though, the song that seems meant to explain her toxic personality is awkward and placed too late to really make the character interesting.

"Verböten" runs through March 8 at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St., Chicago. For tickets, visit www.thehousetheatre.com or call 773-769-3832.

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.

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