House Musical: Coming of Age in the Age of House, the new community production running at Center on Halsted’s Hoover-Leppen Theatre, is a great history lesson on the genre and Black Chicago culture in the mid-80s. This is a time when the CTA’s Supertransfer allowed you to ride buses and trains all day with one extremely affordable fare, you could get a fake ID at the old open-air markets of Maxwell Street with no problems, and hip-hop was a tiny blip on the mainstream radar.
Powerful stories of legendary nights at house clubs are countless, and the early days of the genre are some of the most monumental in Chicago music history. This period deserves to be documented and widely celebrated, and House Musical captures its essence. The times covered in the play run parallel to house music’s birth as well as the onset of the crack and HIV/AIDS epidemics. The production tackles these themes to varying degrees of success; however, it successfully explains the impact these events had on the queer community. It also pays careful homage to Chicago house music, its clubs, and its patron saints.
House Musical: Coming of Age in the Age of House
Through 4/30: Thu-Sun 7:30 PM, Center on Halsted, Hoover-Leppen Theatre, 3656 N. Halsted, centeronhalsted.org, $25-$30
DJ/producers like Frankie Knuckles, Jesse Saunders, and Larry Heard innovated dance music and underground club culture by, among other things, morphing disco tracks by looping the juiciest bits and making the beats repetitive, funky, and perpetually danceable. Revered now-shuttered clubs like The Warehouse, Power Plant, The Generator, and Music Box were home to this new, exciting genre of music. House Musical is set mostly in these clubs and “over East” on the south side of Chicago, with most of the songs being made with analog synthesizers to recreate the feel of the era of predigitized beats.
House Musical, presented byy Campsongs Productions, is based on the book by local playwright Marcus Waller and cowritten by Waller, composer Scott Free, and coproducer Michael Foley. Director Dion Walton and the creators share a lived history of finding themselves during the birth of house, and finding community within Chicago’s queer-friendly clubs. Free, Waller, Foley, and Walton join forces to highlight this time in music and LGBTQ+ history by telling the story of Dwayne, valiantly played by actor Clarence Young and loosely based on Waller’s life.
Dwayne is seduced by The Warehouse, headed by the music of Frankie Knuckles. He has a spiritual experience while visiting the club for the first time, discovering his own queerness in the process. His story is a relatable one—many people have found a deep sense of self in gay-friendly clubs, dancing the night away to an irresistible beat. Dwayne is quickly reminded of rampant homophobia in the Black community outside of his nightlife excursions, with his mother and brother laying hateful and degrading slurs on thick. Dwayne’s club friend Riley, played by the charming Marcellus Burt, reminds us that some queer people ain’t out of the closet, while some of us have never seen the inside of one.
The musical follows Dwayne through his journey of self-discovery, his love of house, and the abandonment by his Christian mother when he comes out. The conflict is abruptly resolved when an ousted Dwayne is found freebasing cocaine on the dangerous Chicago streets, which developmentally leaves a little to be desired. Sub-themes include Riley’s lost bout with AIDS, the casual cocaine use of partygoers turning into full-blown addiction, overt discrimination against gays, and the contributions of the overplayed and underpaid unsung heroes of house music.
Songs like “You Ain’t Fuckin’,” South Side,” and “What’s That Song That Goes” are standouts, with the latter taking place in a local record shop where the ensemble playfully riffs on iconic house songs like “The Percolator,” “Brighter Days,” and “Follow Me.” Queer slang is explored, serving an education on the AAVE so many of us abuse daily. The production provides a lesson on just how influential these times and pioneers were to music and pop culture.
Overall, House Musical is thick with promise and never lags (a bit about the often terrible queerbro aesthetic of Boystown displays perfect humor, considering the production is showing in Boystown), yet as a whole it sometimes falls a little flat. At its best, House Musical is fun, informative, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. At its worst, it plods along with clunky set changes and slightly off-key singing. However the young cast, community setting, and earnest acting of the ensemble makes the whole production endearing.