New Songs For Old Tales @ The Chicago Musical Theatre Festival

2.5 stars out of 4

If I were to sit down and write a musical, I am not sure that metastatic cancer would be the first topic in my head: but J. Linn Allen has taken on just such a hero’s journey in Cancermanwhich made its debut as part of Underscore Theatre Company’s ambitious and annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival: bringing brand new musicals to an audience.  Staged in the stylish new black box Edge Theatre Off Broadway space, the musical tells the tale of Cliff (played by the earnest Bill Kavanaugh), a crusty retired school teacher estranged for years from his daughter Abby (a tough and tender Sarah Hayes) and living with his nurturing sister Mary (the warm and motherly Ana Maria Alvarez). Cliff discovers he has stage four prostate cancer and only a few months to live.  He decides he wants to write a song for the granddaughter he has never met. His painful falling out with his daughter years ago after his wife committed suicide has put distance and pain between this family, and Mary goes to try to build bridges before it’s too late.  Shaina Summerville plays the wife, the granddaughter and a younger version of Abby, while the trio of Emi Lee Frantz, John B. Leen and Timothy Sullivan steps in to play everyone else in this rocky story, from the community guitar group that Cliff hangs out with, to the cancer support group, to the wedding guests that finally get to hear the song (spoiler alert). Director Joan Mazzonelli, a seasoned midwife for new musicals, keeps the pacing up tempo and stages some very funny and on the nose numbers like” Family Disasters “about how difficult relatives can be and “Cancerland”, an all too true rundown on how life is sidetracked after the diagnosis.   “Bit by Bit” is a moving ballad about mortality.  The song that moved me the most was” I’m The One” : the first time I have ever heard a song dedicated to the exhausting task of caregiving. It is quite a balancing act to maneuver through the quiet reflection of mortality and the ultimate degeneration of the main character, while arriving at each song point.  The intimacy of the theatre design sometimes makes the tough work through this tragic story more poignant but perhaps even too close. And as the musical and Cliff reach the inevitable end, the song that Cliff has  finally written either needs a different placement in the show, or reworking because it fell flat as a closer for a musical, where the form demands a soaring finale, or a singable statement.  

Or maybe not: it is possible that many of the new musicals on view for the next week are just beginning their lives and perhaps, like toddlers, they stumble.  Like teens they make mistakes.  And maybe some of them are pushing envelopes. This musical takes on some of the most trying moments of the universality of dying. It is the story of one man’s dying of cancer.  Its not a date night play, but it does spark discussion. And it is vitally important to support the growth and development of entirely new musicals lest we be enchained by reworked movies in every production. Cancerman has one more performance on February 22nd at 7pm in the Off Broadway Edge space at Catalpa and Broadway,in Chicago but the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival is playing all week with newborn Musicals coming into their own.  For details, information and tickets go to www.cmtf.org