Four actors in early 20th-century clothing stand in a row, looking at a newspaper headline.
Notes & Letters at Underscore Theatre Company Credit: Carlito Chavez

If you’re a fan of Henry Louis Gates’s Finding Your Roots on PBS, then you can probably relate to Annabelle Lee Revak’s impulse to create a musical out of the World War I-era letters of her great-great-grandfather, Joe Loula. As in Gates’s program, the most interesting details in Revak’s Notes & Letters with Underscore Theatre Company come from the personal relationships uncovered that illuminate our images of what a particular time in history must have been like.

Here, we meet Loula (Sam Martin), a recent immigrant from what was then known as Bohemia (meaning, not far from Prague), newly arrived in Chicago in 1916—and very happy to be far from the war raging over Europe. A skilled carpenter, he finds work building pianos in the shop owned by Charlie Williams (Michael Mejia). Williams’s shop is also a haven for his girlfriend, Nora Duchek (Caitlin Dobbins), who works at the Green Mill and is trying to convince Charlie to let her take an active hand in the business, and for Olivia Koupek (Katy Campbell), a budding composer who is trying to figure out how to sell songs to King Oliver, who is in residence at the Green Mill.

Notes & Letters
Through 5/28: Fri-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Wed 5/25, 7:30 PM and Sat 5/28, 2 PM; Richard Christiansen Theater at Victory Gardens, 2433 N. Lincoln, 773-871-3000,, $32 ($27 senior, $22 military/first responder, $20 industry, $15 student).

A series of increasingly gloomy headlines from the Tribune make it clear that the war is going to come to America. Meantime, Joe’s growing attraction to Olivia and the cosmopolitan charms of Chicago cause him to pull away from the fiancée at home he’s promised to send for. 

What’s odd is that, though Revak is drawing on family history, there’s a sense of the schematic running through these characters and their relationships that undercuts the generally strong songs. The latter include the aching folk standard “Redbird, Bluebird”; the comic lament “Independent Woman Blues,” in which Charlie and Joe commiserate about women who know their own minds and don’t mind letting the men know it; and Olivia’s Oliver song, “Sublime,” which provides a terrific riff on the “hey, kids, let’s sit down and fix this song all together” trope as they figure out syncopation. (Kudos to music director Anna Wegener on piano, Anthony Scandora on drums, and Abigail Cline on upright bass for swinging live accompaniment.)

Leah Geis’s staging does allow the charm to come through even as the storyline feels a little forced, and it’s hard not to empathize with these characters. They may be living over 100 years away from us, but when they connect with all the hope and passion of young lovers, Notes & Letters shows possibilities not yet present in this production.