There is not a single genuine word spoken or honest note sung in “State Street,” a paltry new musical receiving its world premiere at City Lit. Depicting, with purposeful inaccuracy and hit-and-miss satire, the early days of 1871 Chicago and the origins of the ill-fated Crosby’s Opera House, this laborious classic musical impostor lumbers along for two hours and fifteen minutes, restrained by an archaic book and a bright-eyed, grossly repetitious score that lacks any melodic variation.
The musical’s simplistic, yet remarkably incomprehensible story concerns Jennie Comstock (Diane Mair), an innocent young Bostonian girl recently arrived in the glossy, but criminally overrun, metropolis of Chicago. Jennie, newly orphaned, wanders down a yellow-brick road of historical Chicago luminaries. Jennie’s aunt is the infamous brothel-keeper, Gentle Annie Stafford (Patti Roeder) and the girl’s love interest is Drake Hotel founder John Drake (a nerdily charismatic Matt Edmonds), here, a smiley struggling bellboy at the Sherman House. The Drake Hotel just so happens to be one of the few buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire, which awkwardly ends the play—complete with Mrs. O’Leary and the cow.
The potentially arresting plot is set in motion by an archetypal dapper swindler named Uranus H. Crosby, whose clownish efforts to deceive the city out of a large sum of money by opening an opera house before selling it to a rube for more than it’s worth are confusing and convoluted. Crosby is played by a smooth-talking, serpentine Matthew Keffer, whose tremendous ability as an actor deserves far better than this weak material.
Rather than exist as an independent piece of theater, “State Street” parodies its musical theater siblings in a manner bitterly contemptuous. Shamelessly derivative, copycat situations from Broadway hits like “The Music Man” and “Guys and Dolls” abound, and director Sheldon Patinkin’s hokey staging comments more on the form than contributes to it.
Philip LaZebnik’s mediocre score shows some initial promise in a few robustly sung barbershop quartet sections, but wanes as the successive musical numbers lack vitality and all sound conspicuously alike. The humor, delivered with a gigantic verbal wink by the entire cast, is cutesy to the point of middle school pageantry. Following suit, Roger Wykes’ scenic design of doors that won’t stay closed and Amy Uhl’s jazz-square-laden choreography are clumsy and uninspired.
The musical, unbeknownst to its stupefied audience, is a comedy. But the humor of Kingsley Day and Philip LaZebnik’s book is riddled with open-mic-night one-liners and roughly forced gags that mostly fall on deaf ears. A recurring joke, humorless and without a scrap of intellect, reminisces about Chicago’s violent criminal past through arbitrary onstage killings with deafening, live gunshots. One man walks into a bar, shoots another man, silence, and back to the scene! The garish, pointlessly absurd deaths never receive a single mention—or a single laugh—meaning they have no consequences for these characters. Silliness is a marvelously euphoric diversion, but if the love story at the play’s center is to be respected, some aspect of this spastic skit must come down to earth. For the moment, “State Street” is parading around as a giddy satire, but without any praiseworthy comedy or cache of wit, it’s just pure sugar. (Johnny Oleksinski)
City Lit, 1020 West Bryn Mawr, (773)293-3682. Through June 24.