at the Theatre Building

By Albert Williams

Ever since The Passing Show, the 1894 “topical extravaganza” that popularized the form, the song-and-sketch revue has been a reliable launching pad for young unknowns, showcasing their songwriting talents while allowing them to comment on events and trends of the day. For every standard introduced by such a show, of course, there were dozens of now-forgotten numbers, but the form itself has proved a breeding ground for such talented folks as Betty Comden and Adolph Green–whose act, the Revuers, played Greenwich Village in the 1930s–George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Schwartz and Dietz, Vernon Duke, Harold Rome, Sheldon Harnick, Paul Lynde, and many others who worked on various “Follies,” “Gaieties,” “Scandals,” “New Faces,” and “Pins and Needles” shows.

The 30ish writer-performers in the new musical Vices lack name recognition, to be sure. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Everett Bradley, Susan Draus, Michael Heitzman, and Ilene Reid–the four out-of-towners who wrote the score and script and star in the world premiere of Vices (presented by New York producer Arielle Tepper) along with local performers Neda Spears, Mark Teich, and Keely Vasquez–become very well known in the coming years. Meanwhile, audiences seeking a refreshing spin on the classic revue format might find Vices an engaging introduction to some promising young artists.

The show’s premise sounds a little forced: it’s organized around various habits and addictions, from alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and anonymous sex to chocolate, gossiping, and golf. But sharp timing, a sure tone, and attention to detail keep the evening generally fresh and diverting. And musically this anthology is exceptionally strong and stylistically refreshing, in a pop vein seldom heard in legitimate theaters. Keyboardist-conductor Draus, who leads a four-piece electric band from a platform above the stage, is a first-rate arranger with impressive music-industry credentials. (And what a pleasure it is to be able to actually see the band in a Chicago musical.) The New York-based Bradley, Heitzman, and Reid are strong singer-actor-dancers who met as members of the Indiana University music department’s Singing Hoosiers–one of the best pop chorales in the country despite its hayseed name.

Aside from a few campy parodies of 1920s tap tunes and Sigmund Romberg operettas (including a “Stouthearted Men” spoof about a trio of body-armored muscle builders), the score is pumped with confident flourishes of Yes/Genesis-style progressive rock and Stevie Wonder/Tower of Power-influenced jazz-funk, bebop scat chorales, and melancholy modern-jazz ballads. These idioms might not charm viewers whose taste is restricted to the traditional forms of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Sondheim or to the pop bombast of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Claude-Michel Schonberg, and their imitators, but others will find the eclectic, skillfully performed score a welcome change of pace.

Balancing the well-blended choral numbers are strong solo spots for each headsetted member of the six-person cast. Reid, a superb torch singer, reveals dark depths of feeling as well as pyrotechnic technique in two jazzy ballads: the cool “Johnny,” which resembles “‘Round Midnight,” and “All the Money,” about the desperate codependent spouse of a cocaine user. Heitzman is intriguingly subtle as a married man exploring infidelity via online sex chat in one scene, then broadly funny as a dorky clerk at a gourmet espresso/latte boutique taken over by consumer terrorists ready to kill for a plain cup of black coffee. Bradley–a dynamic singer-dancer formerly with the Broadway company of Stomp–is a shrewd choreographer who fills the small stage with high-energy movement. Vasquez is adorable as a teen telephone addict in a Cyndi Lauper/Julie Brown dance number; the diminutive, balding Teich is forceful as a Type A futures trader brushing off his family as he chases the next deal. And Spears is a powerful soul belter in the smooth-jazz ballad “Do You Mind If I Smoke?” which leads to a driving house-music dance number about nicotine craving.

Vices has flaws, to be sure. It’s about 15 minutes too long: Heitzman, who staged the show, should turn the reins over to a more objective director who could trim and shape the material for a stronger cumulative impact. And though some of the group skits and seriocomic solo confessionals are clever, most feel like padding–ways to fill time while other actors are changing costumes backstage.

Part of the problem is that the music is usually so hot that the spoken sections can’t help but feel like a letdown. But more fundamental, these portions don’t reveal a clear point of view on the show’s theme. It’s not clear what Vices thinks of the vices it depicts; the show too accurately reflects the talk-TV era, in which it’s sufficient to simply share secrets without considering what they say about the individual or the culture. (You could argue that the fundamental vice driving Vices is compulsive confession.) But as a display of songwriting and performing talent, this is an impressive, high-energy addition to a crammed spring season.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Vices stage photo.