Chicago is a fantastic destination for musical development; in fact, whenever I’m not reviewing theatre, you’re likely to catch me at work in musical theatre workshops providing dramaturgical assistance. There’s one piece of advice I give constantly, because even the best musical teams forget it: Be certain your songs move your story forward. A pretty melody may be enough for a pop song, but on a musical stage, your song has to carry a revelation, an argument, a plan, or even a delusion to get across. Anything less, and your audience will be checking their watches, waiting for the stage action to proceed once your beautiful music is over.
Strawdog Theatre’s “Take Me,” a new musical from book writer Mark Guarino and composer/lyricist Jon Langford, manages to hit that songwriting pitfall at full bore, and what should be a compelling concept just devolves into tedium. Great dramatic writing and songwriting come from specifics and fully realized characters, and while “Take Me” has scratched the surface, the creators leave significant depths unexplored.
Shelly (Nicole Bloomsmith) is having an understandably hard time on Earth; her husband Matt (Michael Reyes) is in a coma after a flight he captained went awry, and her young son is either being cared for by her mother and father (Loretta Rezos and Matt Rosin), or is missing. She’s in a grief spiral, and every authority she embraces has told her to move on with her life. Everyone except the new alien voices she hears via her corporate wireless headset. They tease a possible reunion with her husband and son, and task her with creating a “connector” space for their arrival. They even ensure that Travis (Carmine Grisolia), an Intergalactic Space Cowboy, is there to assist, mostly by writing sad country songs. Her childhood toy Doggy (Kamille Dawkins) also springs to life, both glad and bitter about being discarded for years in an attic.
“Take Me” can’t seem to make up its mind about what is reality, or what could be psychosis, so everything we see could be both or neither. That particular ambiguity kills the tension and lowers the stakes for every scene. For instance, if Shelly hasn’t really petitioned Roswell’s city council (staffed by Soviet space dogs) to build a theme park, and that park isn’t really a rousing success, and nothing has as deep an impact for her as her real missing husband and son, those events — real or not — have little bearing on her journey. Moreover, Shelly’s actions have no trajectory if she doesn’t have the conviction that doing them will bring her family back. She is just tossed along in a weird, directionless current. The specifics, world rules, or even a definable want for the story’s protagonist are so vague, it’s hard to get invested.
The strongest moments of “Take Me” come at the introduction of lovable weirdos. Shelly meets a support group of fellow abductees, and a collective of Soviet space dogs that are eccentric and vibrant, but barely factor into Shelly’s journey. Plus, if these characters stand in Shelly’s way, or can offer her tidbits of advice, she must hold for a musical number before that happens. Performers like Carmine Grisolia as Travis the Intergalactic Space Cowboy and Kamille Dawkins as an abandoned stuffed Doggy are spirited and energetic. They deserve writing that ensures they are not placeholders or exposition-fountains between moments of action. Nicole Bloomsmith as Shelly is a beacon of optimism under constant threat of being extinguished. Shelly the character has enough to contend with, like her own psyche, or unfeeling threshold guardians standing in her way. She doesn’t need to be saddled with writer indecision or forced silence as too many characters sing their soliloquies at her.
Director Anderson Lawfer and arranger Anabelle Revak have worked to make everything besides the script as charming as possible. The stage is the curving hull of a NASA spacecraft, swarming with gorgeous projected constellations. The music is the rolicking Americana strum of guitars and violins. We should be filled with abject wonder, but it’s a real shame about that libretto.
DICE RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great“
TEN WORD SUMMARY: This space-traversing new musical needs more time to bake.
Show: “Take Me”
Company: Strawdog Theatre Company
Venue: Strawdog Theatre Company (1802 W. Berenice Ave.)