Underscore Theatre’s newest non-equity world premiere musical “Proxy” by Alexander Sage Oyen (music and lyrics), Austin Regan (book) and Rachel Franco (book and lyrics) has gone to great lengths to obscure its source material. You won’t find reference to the true story that inspired it mentioned anywhere, and all names and details have been changed just enough to let audiences enjoy the salacious fiction for a time. There’s a bloody murder attempt, a culprit in the throes of mental illness, and the longstanding hurt of the survivors. It all makes for thrilling drama.
Unfortunately, I lost my taste for it the moment it occurred to me that there may be real survivors of a similar horror, unaware that their experiences were being dramatized. People under the age of 18 who may value their privacy, not notable public figures. While “Proxy” takes care to remove itself from the 2014 Wisconsin “Slenderman” stabbing that inspired it, the thought of real people not having knowledge or a say in this musical left me feeling implicated. I am immediately regretful of any enjoyment I got from potentially unconsenting sources.
I understand not everyone may feel the same, but given that the musical itself values journalistic honesty, it’s odd that the creative team affords their fictional victims more say than the actual victims in how their stories are told. In “Proxy,” Vanessa (Carisa Gonzalez) is a digital media journalist whose publication is going under. To save her job and her boss Doug (Michael Mejia), Vanessa volunteers her own click-bait story of being stabbed multiple times at age twelve by her best friend, Ronnie (Tessa Dettman). Ronnie claimed that she only hurt her friend to appease the faceless gentleman that appears only to her and become his proxy. Vanessa decides to return to her hometown and confront Ronnie in disguise as another reporter to give herself distance, but reopening old wounds with Ronnie, her mother (Jenny Rudnick) and brother Sean (Jonas Davidow) solidify just how lost Vanessa is in her life’s impossible narrative.
Director Stephanie Rohr and music director T.J. Anderson keep the action moving at tight clip, and make the most of a very intimate stage and minimal score. As Vanessa and Ronnie, Carisa Gonzalez and Tessa Dettman are vocal powerhouses, with perfect soaring clarity and fantastic emotional depth. They portray two women that are not always likable or sympathetic, but can still ensure we are hanging on their every word.
The “Proxy” score struggles to meet the performing team halfway. The songs carry so much plot and extemporaneous detail that it can be a struggle to find the hook or a definitive style. The wordiness of each number also obscures different character voices, or the discovery/changes they want to convey. Repetition and reprises may not be every songwriter’s favorite tools, but they’re effective where they appear in “Proxy.” One particular number that works well to offset the heavy subject matter is Sean’s comedy song of self discovery, “To Find Who I Am,” where he imagines all the amazing places he’d like to visit and smoke weed.
I’d hesitate to recommend “Proxy” without an assurance from the authors, or from Underscore, that the minors whose stories have inspired this musical have given their blessing for this project to explore a dark time in their lives. Without some proof of due diligence, this production is asking audiences to ignore the real individuals who potentially had no say (or knowledge) in how this story was crafted. If I were the inspiration for a musical, I’d want to know.
DICE RATING: d6 — “Has Some Merit”
TEN WORD SUMMARY: An ethical dilemma distracts from fine writing and stellar performers.
Company: Underscore Theatre Company
Venue: The Understudy (4609 N Clark St)