Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Smells Like Teen (and Pre-Teen) Spirit: New Songs, Lasting Memories Power Rock Musical, Verböten -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a new musical
Music & lyrics by Jason Narducy
Book by Brett Neveu
Directed by Nathan Allen
House Theatre of Chicago
at the Chopin Theatre
Thru March 8

Any of us who have an abiding love of rock music--or perhaps even make it--can undoubtedly cite key bands and solo artists who sparked our initial and enduring affinity.

Many would undoubtedly say the Beatles, or perhaps Elvis Presley, who was a big influence on John Lennon.

I think it's cool that Bob Dylan went to a Buddy Holly concert, and that David Bowie said that he "heard God" upon listening to Little Richard's "Tutti Fruitti."

A good friend of mine forever connects back to Cream, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix.

I love all of the aforementioned, but it was probably KISS who first got me excited about rock 'n roll, soon followed by ELO, Queen, Cheap Trick and--before I was 12--Bruce Springsteen, who remains my favorite today.

Per interviews I've seen over several years and Episode #1 of the HBO documentary series, Sonic Highways, Dave Grohl--who found international fame & acclaim as the drummer for Nirvana, then went on to lead the Foo Fighters as singer, guitarist and chief songwriter--was highly influenced by being taken to a Naked Raygun concert at Chicago's Cubby Bear by his cousin Tracey in 1982.

And was further beguiled by the potency and possibilities of punk rock by a band 14-year-old Tracey was then in with friends, some even younger than she was.

That band was called Verböten.

Despite their youthfulness, they even opened for Naked Raygun at the Cubby Bear, though as best I can now discern--even in asking the actual Tracey after seeing the loosely biographical new musical, also called Verböten, on Sunday night--that was a different Naked Raygun show than the one she took Dave to. It seems he, a Virginia resident who visited Tracey and her family in Evanston, primarily saw and was smitten by Verböten band rehearsals.

Of course, at the time, no one--including Tracey and her 11-year-old songwriting bandmate, Jason Narducy--could suspect that her cousin would go on to be a seminal member of two of the best bands of all-time, one of the most talented musicians of our day and, arguably, the last great rock star (with due deference to Eddie Vedder and Jack White).

Or even that Narducy would stay musically active, presently leading a band called Split Single and often playing alongside Bob Mould, whose earlier trio, Hüsker Dü, presumably helped influence Verböten, Nirvana and Foo Fighters.

Per a recent article by Chicago Tribune rock critic Greg Kot, Grohl had shared the story of Tracey and the Naked Raygun concert in a 1996 Tribune piece as Foo Fighters were embarking in their first tour. And it was only then that Narducy realized that the powerhouse drummer for the world-changing Nirvana, and head Foo Fighter, was the kid he'd met years ago in basement band rehearsals.

Then in 2014, when this little bit of rock 'n roll kismet was shared in Sonic Highways, with Tracey and Jason featuring in the episode as adults, Chicago playwright Brett Neveu took note.

Neveu got in touch with fellow Evanstonian Narducy for permission to write a play, convinced him it should be a musical with new songs Jason would compose and interested Chicago's innovative House Theatre and their artistic director, Nathan Allen, in producing the show.

After five years of development, Verböten has now opened at Chicago's Chopin Theatre, incidentally but appropriately named for another of history's greatest musicians.

As a rather cool rock musical, I quite enjoyed it.

Seemingly blending fact, fiction, potentially hazy childhood recollections and dramatic license, the narrative that unfolds onstage is as much representative as it is steeped in precise reality.

For example, adult actors--all playing instruments as well--embody the pre-adolescent Jason (nicely played by Kieran McCabe), Tracey (a perfectly spunky Krystal Ortiz), Chris (Matthew Lunt) and Zack (Jeff Kurysz), and without knowing the real history, you'd likely assume Verböten was a band of older teens.

This isn't a problem, as the situations depicted--battles with one's parents or simply feeling sheepish about them, trying to find one's place, purpose and persona, a bit of outcast angst--aren't any more native to 13 than to 17.

And from the opening "New Song"--led by McCabe as Jason--the stage is often exuberantly filled not only by the ersatz Verboten members, but the performers playing their parents, all of whom rotate between playing instruments or just rocking out with abandon.

Many of Narducy's songs appropriately have a punk rock--and innate "me against the world"--bent, with lead vocals nicely spread among several characters.

Tracey powers "Breaking Out," while Chris (Lunt) and his sister (Marika Mashburn) belt the charged "I'm Not Sorry" and Zack (Kurysz, who I've seen in nicely diverse roles in recent years) rocks "Pound You Down."

Jason, who is shown as having a tumultuous time living with his dad after his parents' divorce, initially performs "Broken Home"--whose opening bass line couldn't help remind me of Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box"--but it is shrewdly reprised with other voices later.

Including "You Belong" richly delivered by Tracey, and the anthemic "Rock Dreams Never Die," all the songs sounded good, though the jarring style made some harder to appreciate on a first encounter. (With most musicals--except brand new ones--and even rock concerts, I usually know many of the songs coming in.)

And with all of the aforementioned performers, as well as Ray Rehberg (as Jason's dad), Paul Brian Fagen (Tracey's dad), Jenni M. Hadley (Tracey's mom), Jimmy Chung (Jason's stepdad), the delightful Marc A. Rogers (Zack's dad) and drummer Timothy Daniel Remis, doing fine work, I got a good sense of Verböten's curative camaraderie and musical verve while being well-entertained at face value.

Though Verböten is thematically strong, not everything congealed perfectly on a narrative level, with a bit too much redundancy among the parent/child relationships, true as that may be.

And while Chung does a nice job as Jason's stepdad, I was candidly confused as he initially seems to be an imaginary character that Jason speaks to but his real dad doesn't see.

Though I don't perceive Verböten as a Broadway-ready musical at this point, not only is it quite good but I can see it being even better with some refinements.

Still, I strongly recommend the show to any rock lovers intrigued by the backstory, though I wish a little more of it was slyly woven in onstage.

Respecting that Neveu, Narducy and Allen have tinkered with the script for years and probably decided it best not to reference Dave Grohl--or have him represented as a kid in the story--nor somehow note that Jason went onto have a nice rock career, I think something gets lost without this.

Narducy does mention the coincidences in his written introduction in the wonderfully-designed program book, but anyone who watches Verböten oblivious to Grohl's recollections--possibly House subscribers who aren't big alt-rock fans--will, IMHO, miss out on a cool element.

Sure, they'll see a great story of kids finding themselves--to multiple meanings--in a rock band, somewhat like the excellent 2016 movie Sing Street, soon to open as a Broadway musical.

But the idea that a band of really young punks, which only lasted for 15 months, could unwittingly inspire another kid who would join Nirvana--with great respect to Foo Fighters and others, I don't think there's been a better or more important band since--and remain a torch-bearing rock superstar decades later, is part of the relevancy that I don't think should be overlooked.

This is obviously an imperfect parallel, but if reading this review inspires anyone to see Verboten, I would be really happy. But if it also happens to inspire someone to become a writer, and they go on to be the next Lester Bangs or David Foster Wallace or Colson Whitehead or Rebecca Gilman, well how cool would that be to learn about?

I respect the challenge of making creative choices, and those involved in this fine new musical certainly settled on many right ones.

But I just don't think openly referencing the strange ways a cultural icon's career inspiration can come--such as in a cousin's basement--should be verboten. 

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