It's hardly news that small Chicago theaters rarely are daunted by big projects, but the latest endeavor at City Lit is as noteworthy as it is frustrating. As penned by Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day and directed by Sheldon Patinkin, "State Street" is a full-blown, two-act musical set in the rollicking environs of 19th century Chicago and following both a pretty young orphan, a newcomer to the exploding city, and a flimflammer who has figured out that you can make a decent buck by peddling culture to an insecure city that, then as now, is forever worrying about its status and sophistication.
For those of us compelled by Chicago history, there are many pleasures in this exceedingly melodic entertainment — LaZebnik's score to this show is better than some new Broadway musicals — which could have been written by Gilbert and Sullivan, had that British pair been inclined to write about Marshall Field and Potter Palmer instead of their Modern Major-General or Lord High Executioner.
Shrewdly, LaZebnik and Day base their yarn, set mostly on the titular storied boulevard, on the real-life activities of one of the greatest arts advocates (and con men) in Chicago history — a liquor distiller named Uranus H. Crosby (Matthew Keffer), who built an opera house named after himself, hit hard times and suddenly announced he would "sell" the building by offering raffle tickets at five bucks (then a hefty sum) a pop. That scheme netted Crosby more than a million bucks. And although Crosby declared a winner, the mysterious owner of the ticket never showed up in Chicago, leaving Crosby only to announce that he had "bought back" the theater for $200,000 from this person and planned to renovate. Crosby didn't need grants; perchance his modus operandi would be a useful scheme for Steppenwolf, as it develops its own expansion and renovation.
Alas, Crosby's renovated opera house ran into the folly ofMrs. O'Leary's cow on the very eve of its reopening, and that perhaps-unfairly maligned bovine makes a cameo, although the cow lacks a formal musical number.
This all might sound a bit like the plot of "The Music Man," and so it is, given that Crosby has a love interest in Diane Mair's zesty-but-fictional Jennie Comstock. But LaZebnik and Day mix in a subplot involving John Drake (Matt Edmonds), then a Sherman House doorman with big hotel-owning dreams, and they fill their carefully mapped show with many amusing hometown details, even finding room for a little chorus of hookers working for the legendary Chicago brothel keeper "Gentle" Annie Stafford, whose famous establishment once stood on ground very close to the tower in which I currently write. If you're a sucker for this stuff, you should most certainly head to City Lit, although you'll likely find yourself wishing that "State Street" had been afforded a better production.
The problems are partly budgetary — an attempt was made at a full-blown staging, but seemingly without the resources to do so in any kind of aesthetically pleasing way — which means that a simpler conceit would have been preferable. The show is a visual jumble throughout, and the setting is amateurish indeed. There's not much room at City Lit to move all these actors around and, by the second act, the whole staging just seems to run out of steam and nobody really seems to know where they are going or why. Narrative urgency, alas, disappears completely.
The show also can't decide on its own style — there are some talented young actors in the cast, especially Mair and Keffer, and some quite decent singers, especially Edmonds — but the show needs a darker and more sardonic tone to provide the right counterbalance for its wicked sense of humor. "State Street" gets off some fine zingers at city boosters and so-called artistes; its production needs to sharpen its satiric blade, as well as decide what should be sliced and how it should be diced.
I sincerely hope someone does "State Street" again. In the meantime, the merchants of that great street should adopt the catchy song "You Can Find It on State Street," a fine homage to its retail Emporia of days past, where, according to the deft LaZebnik lyric, a shopper could find Porterhouse steaks or a floral bouquet, a mechanical pig or a sheer negligee, corsets and candy, tobacco and Tiffany, glass for a lamp or a seat at the symphony.
When: Through June 24
Where: 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes