Sometimes the tiniest blips on the radar screen of pop culture can inspire the next great theatrical story. At least that’s what seems to have come to mind for playwright Brett Neveu when he began working on “Verböten,” the new musical playing at The House Theatre of Chicago, under the direction of Nathan Allen. Inspired by the band of the same name—consisting of a group of Chicagoland teenagers who invaded the punk scene for a fifteen-month period of ecstasy—“Verböten” has songs by Jason Narducy, one of the original band members. If you’re going to dramatize someone’s teenage glory days, you might as well get help from the source.
As maybe should have been expected from a musical based on and about teenagers, “Verböten” is, for better or worse, a perfect embodiment of teenage angst and id. Messy, childish, angry, confused and altogether raucous and emotional with questionable levels of depth and reason. It is an unabashedly great time, but dramaturgically the thing’s a mess. A mess that I enjoyed, but a mess nonetheless.
The story is compact and simple: it’s the day before Verböten’s big show at Cubby Bear in Wrigleyville and our teen punk-rock stars are struggling with pre-show jitters, mainly stemming from degrees of stress and anxiety from their respective families. These anxieties become the fuel for Narducy’s songs, both in and outside of the show’s diegesis. Some songs are part of the band’s set list, some are sung to the rafters mid-scene like your run-of-the-mill musical. These musical numbers are the number-one reason you should see “Verböten.” They range from full-on punk to musical theater rock-lite, but they’re all emotionally resonant earworms, performed earnestly and ably by this brilliantly crafted ensemble.
As a piece of musical theater, “Verböten” suffers from one of the harshest and most common criticisms of the genre: great songs, less-than-stellar book. In their mission to embellish the slice-of-life story of these teens and their families, Neveu created first-draft problems for these characters to traverse, with enough dramatic heft to create conflict, but not enough resolution to answer the “Why?” of what these conflicts say about the larger story.
The end of act one conflict requires a level of abusive behavior from Jason’s dad (Ray Rehberg) which feels mismatched from what we’ve seen of his character. Jason’s stepdad (Jimmy Chung) is a lovely and nurturing character in this play but his presence as a sort of imaginary character for Jason raises questions of how close their relationship is. Zack (Jeff Kurysz) has to be annoyed by his dad, but his dad (Marc A. Rogers, who brings down the house with a damn good dad-rock number) is played as such a nice and positive guy that the teenage angst thrown against him feels unreasonable. And any character development between Chris (Matthew Lunt) and his sister (Marika Mashburn) comes so late in the second act that even her admittedly kickass rock number “I Can’t Count on Love” is a showstopper in the sense that it halts the second act’s plot in its tracks.
With all its narrative flaws (alongside lines of dialogue that oscillate between corny earnestness and unearned self-awareness), you’ll still likely find something to enjoy in “Verböten,” a musical about trying to find where you belong, a lesson I hope this show can discover for itself sooner rather than later. Especially noteworthy are Kieran McCabe and Krystal Ortiz as our two teen leads, bringing vocal prowess and gut-wrenching humanity to their respective arcs. They exist truly and wholly, living loud in living color within a musical that, at this stage, feels more like a pencil sketch. (Ben Kaye)
The House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 West Division, (773)769-2832, thehousetheatre.com, $30-$50. Through March 8.