at the Bop Shop

We live in an age that takes itself far too seriously, when everyone from the most puffed-up CEO to the most sullen wage slave desperately needs to lighten up. We even take our entertainment too seriously, which is why musical theater has become a temple for such brooding, pretentious pop operas as The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Miss Saigon. And why when a show comes along like Steve Wallem’s one-man musical revue Off the Wallem–which dares to puncture the pretentiousness of contemporary theater and by extension contemporary life–I leave it feeling lighthearted and giddy.

Billed as a “one-man oratorio,” Off the Wallem is of course in no way an oratorio. Rather this hour-long show, performed by Wallem on a bare stage in front of an upright piano played by Danny Musha, is a loose collection of monologues, parodies, and original songs, written by Wallem and others, all supposedly about Wallem.

Yet for all his talk about honest self-revelation, we never get to know the real Steve Wallem. Instead, by poking fun at exercises in narcissistic music theater such as A . . . My Name Is Alice, he provides us with a series of masks, each of them satirically exaggerated, all of them named Steve Wallem.

Sometimes he boasts of impressive accomplishments–“I got a call from Andrew Lloyd Webber. I played a street person in Annie; the critics wept.” And you wonder why this pompous name-dropper has lowered himself to perform in the Bop Shop’s tiny side room.

At other times he comes off as such a loser that he seems on the verge of falling out of show business altogether. The evening begins with a bit in which Wallem, clearly trying way too hard to impress, screws up major at the “Marriott/Candlelight/Shear Madness/Clock Tower general auditions.”

At still other times “Wallem the bitch” comes out to rant about how badly his life has gone, as in “Into the Bus,” a hilarious parody of “Into the Woods” in which he complains about being on the Pegasus Players’ national tour of the Sondheim musical.

Each of these Wallems–the schmuck, the nebbish, the kvetch–is appealing in its own way, in large part because Wallem, despite his obvious gifts as a singer, dancer, and performer, never overplays his hand. Even when the character he’s playing is full of Broadway-style grandiosity, he never goes over the top. And he never telegraphs the kind of response he’d like from the audience, preferring to follow the old acting rule “Don’t tell the audience something is funny–let them laugh.”

Those who go to Off the Wallem expecting a Chicago version of Forbidden Broadway will be sorely disappointed. For one thing Wallem and his collaborators are not as accomplished parodists as Forbidden Broadway’s Gerard Alessandrini, who has elevated the song parody into a kind of musicalized theater criticism. Wallem and Musha’s “Into the Bus” doesn’t hold a candle to Alessandrini’s Sondheim parody “Into the Words.”

Yet it’s clearly not Wallem’s aim to imitate Alessandrini. Otherwise he wouldn’t try so hard from time to time to reveal the soul behind his various comic masks–as when he ends a mildly humorous reminiscence about growing up in Rockford (“My dad made me take ballet and opera”) with a haunting rendition of Sondheim’s beautiful ballad from Sunday in the Park With George, “Children in Art”: “Momma was funny / Momma was fun / Momma spent money / When she had none.”

The funny thing is that Sondheim’s witty but serious song doesn’t seem out of place amid all the comic bits. If anything, this ballad and several others Wallem sprinkles throughout the show serve to cleanse our mental palate and prepare us for his next burst of comedy. Conversely, these ballads wouldn’t have been half as moving if the material leading up to them weren’t so funny. This is a lesson those pompous writers of relentlessly serious pop operas have yet to learn.