Ever wondered how a play gets made? How a stage musical finds its ultimate shape? There’s an interesting example of talent becoming skill, and skill aspiring to art, on the upstairs stage at the Biograph Theater in Lincoln Park.
The Biograph is now owned by Victory Gardens, whose focus is live theater, especially major new work by living playwrights, and to also host other companies, from local to international, which can make use of various performance spaces.
Annabelle Lee Revak’s “Notes and Letters,” a fledgling musical-in-miniature and still somewhat unfinished business,is now playing in that upstairs space. It’s the project of a vest-pocket incubator of new works called Underscore Theatre, which has been fashioning the show for several years, on and off, as COVID intervened.
Revak, who majored in musical theater and composition at Chicago’s Columbia College, moved on to complete advanced training at the University of Wolverhampton, in the so-called Midlands, several hours northwest of London.
But Chicago’s obviously in the lyricist-playwright’s heart: “Notes and Letters” is set in downtown Chicago in 1917. Revak writes that the idea for her musical came from letters she looked at, written by her great-great grandfather, indicating the existence of a loved one in an earlier part of his life, and in another part of the world, yet never spoken of.In Revak’s show, it’s clear fairly early that an engagement promise made by Joe back home in Bohemia is nagging at him, even as it seems to fade in memory. But it’s a promise that will have repercussions, sorted out in the end.
As it opens, the country’s not at war just yet, but inflation’s out of control. Three high-energy young adults with complementary talents are in the orbit of a custom piano shop in the heart of what’s now Chicago’s Loop. The shop’s owner is the show’s fourth character, and the compact scenic design of Rebekah Clark reveals a crammed piano store with walls that fold outward, giving the impression of a three-dimensional scrapbook with tattered pages. There is indeed some interesting local history here: Revak was also inspired by information she dug up about the Williams Piano & Organ Company, an icon once located near Washington and State.
‘Notes and Letters’
The musical opens as immigrant Joe, a carpenter by trade back in Bohemia, is fresh off the boat. He’s befriended by the budding songwriter Olivia, who likes to spend time at the piano shop and at the Green Mill jazz club (also a real place in Broadway’s Uptown, once favored by Al Capone and still blowing cobwebs out of the ears).
Newcomer Joe (the immediately agreeable tenor Sam Martin) is soon taken in by Charlie, (baritone Michael Mejia) whose piano shop is in urgent need of a custom cabinetmaker to frame those keys in fancy woods that customers demand. A piano is furniture after all, we are reminded, so it’s handy that wood-working is Joe’s strength.
Meanwhile, Charlie’s girlfriend Nora tries to convince Charlie that she’s the one with the real talent for building his business. Caitlin Dobbins is delightfully spunky here, although Nora’s assertiveness comes as a surprise. These days such female aspiration would be no big deal, of course. But in 1917, when this play is set, it is the eyebrow-raising concern of “Independent Woman Blues,” one of Revak’s best songs, sung together by Charlie and Joe in bewilderment. Mejia nicely reflects the rising tensions that affable newcomer Charlie faces, as his two worlds and its women spin circumstance beyond his control.
The composer, as playwright also, writes one of her best scenes for Olivia and Joe as the two discover their mutual immigrant roots, evoking memories and finishing each other’s lines in the nostalgic “Redbird, Bluebird.” It’s a lovely number. Generally, however, Revak’s music throughout is stronger than the logic of her storyline, which can be puzzling.
The free-thinking familiarity of the women as they interacted with their male counterparts seemed likewise a time-out-of-joint challenge for director Leah Geis, and Revak in her writer role shares responsibility for these anachronistic tendencies, although there was nothing like the suspension of disbelief that is required in your average mid-century pirate movie.
One finds Geis’s strong direction in several of the complex scenes, notably Olivia’s piano lesson to Joe. The amenable student is soon involved with the others in a delightful ragtime transformation that takes over the place. Revak’s catchy spin on her tagline “and he goes and he goes and he goes” becomes a heady dance number for them all, and there’s nifty footwork in Ebrin R. Stanley’s choreography, too.