Nostalgic fondness for a past era can all be well and good, but it sure isn’t enough to sustain a musical comedy.
“Skates A New Musical,” a new ’70s-infused musical with the cardboard sweetness and dissolvable texture of cotton candy, deploys roller skating (sort of) to provide sass and style to a female empowerment tale.
But when the tale itself feels utterly underdeveloped and, worse, self-pitying, and the characters come with nothing more than an attitude and a wardrobe, all that sass and style — along with several appealingly peppy performances — feels like decorative wrapping on an empty gift box.
‘Skates A New Musical’
The inauthenticity of the show takes less than a minute to become discomfiting.Two genuinely talented “American Idol stars” — real-life married couple Diana DeGarmo and Ace Young — play rock star Jacqueline Miller and her saxophonist boyfriend Blake Conrad.They’re touring the country — it’s 1994 at the start of the show — in support of Jacqueline’s newfound stardom from a chart-topping song.
But as soon as they open with that song, your attention goes not to the catchy tune but to the fact that the guitar and saxophone are both fake — and obviously so.Nothing sound designer Ray Nardelli can do will make that less problematic.
Note to first-time musical theater writers — unless the show is about air musicians, don’t start with an air guitar, followed by an air saxophone.Opening numbers are supposed to pull an audience in to whatever reality is being created, not make them go to war with their disbelief.
The writers in this case, are book writer Christine Rea and composer Rick Briskin.Rea grew up outside of Chicago and then toured as Mary Magdalene in “Jesus Christ Superstar.”Briskin has been a sideman for big-name singers like Diana Ross and Cindy Lauper.
The apparently first-effort nature of this collaboration shows not just in that awkward start, but in the reliance on this entire 1994 outer narrative.The idea is that when things go wrong for Jacqueline — her manager runs off with her money, and Blake treats her like crap — she flashes back to 1977, when she was 12 years old and spent her Saturdays at the roller rink or dishing about boys nonstop with her bestie.
For the rest of the show, the adult Jacqueline follows around her adolescent self, played with plenty of pluck by the young adult Emma Lord.The concept is that older Jacqueline will re-discover the spark and confidence of her younger self.But it’s always a problem when our lead character, the older Jacqueline, is a passive participant in her own story.To be honest, it felt like the show could pretty much end with the early moment when young Jackie, upon meeting her older self, exclaims, “What I wouldn’t give to be a rock star with a number one hit in 1994.”Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Ms. Rock Star.Problem solved.
But at least now we get to the sass and style and the Windy City Skates roller rink, which seems to be the raison d’etre of a show that aspires to camp.Kelvin Roston Jr., recently a strong Othello at the Court Theatre, shows his range as a short-shorts-wearing skater with an atmospheric enthusiasm and no actual role to play in the plot other than leading group dance sequences.And Kelly Felthous, as young Jackie’s friend Meghan, and Adam Fane, as Jackie’s “hotty” crush, both pull off the oversized performance style as well.The older teenage characters who bully and snort coke, however, are caught in nowhere land — like “Rock of Ages” characters trapped in “The Sound of Music.”
There are some intriguing elements of the show, directed to a definite professional level by Brenda Didier and staged at the beautifully restored Studebaker Theatre.I found somewhat ingenious the fake roller skates the cast wears — slippery-souled platform shoes with rollers painted on them — allowing them to simulate skating without making the audience terrified for their safety.But I also think that given the freedom of motion, choreographer Christopher Chase Carter could have done more to express the fun and possibilities.
Briskin’s tunes, meanwhile, ring of familiarity without having much personality of their own, and the lyrics — from both Rea and Briskin — are filled with one clich? thought after another.
In the end, “Skates” goes absolutely everywhere you expect it to and nowhere you don’t, without enough wit or craft to make it worth the ride.