Playwrights: Aaron Dean and Jason Rico. At: The Ruckus Theater at The Side Project, 1439 W. Jarvis. Phone: 773-769-7257; $15. Runs through: Jan. 30
The Ruckus Theatre proudly displays a photocopied cease-and-desist letter in The Side Project's lobby for the world-premiere musical Escape from the Haltsburg Boys Choir. Apparently the New York lawyers for the Vienna Boys Choir were none too pleased about Ruckus' original show title, which bore the Austrian city moniker instead of the fictional Haltsburg.
I don't blame the Vienna Boys Choir for being protective of its name. After seeing Escape…, I too would not want to be associated with this dramatically muddled and historically dubious musical.
It's very admirable that the young Ruckus Theatre would attempt to stage a musicaland a brand-new one at that. But Aaron Dean (book/co-lyricist) and Jason Rico (co-lyricist/music) really need to take a remedial dramatics course since the storytelling structure of Escape… is such a shambles.
Escape… tells the tale of four boy choristers (played by young women in the spirit of trouser roles in opera) who set to out escape from their abusive schoolespecially when they uncover that their egomaniacal Choirmaster plans to have the boys castrated to forever preserve their boy soprano voices. Out in the forest, the boys encounter mythical creatures like a witch and a crab-like gnome as they try to outpace their pursuers.
The problem with Dean and Rico's approach is that the meandering structure of flashbacks ultimately saps any dramatic buildup in show. Characters that get killed often reappear in flashback for no major storytelling purpose other than to show another side of their character (particularly in the case of Megan Gotz as the bully Victors).
I don't know why director Daniel Caffrey didn't rein in the authors of Escape… who felt that this flashback structure was necessary for what is essentially a linear narrative. And for a musical, there aren't that many songs in the show.
The actors do their best with the poor material they have. So I guess it's not really Jeffrey Fauver's fault if his villainous Choirmaster comes off as more fey and bumbling instead of maniacal. And Kate Black does her best to show off the plucky side of the boyish leader Johanne, even if her singing voice didn't sound as golden on opening night as all the characters claimed it to be.
Despite the dramatic flaws of Escape…, there's good work being done by offstage musicians Charles Worth and Katie Canavan, plus the actress Sarah Bockel as the dream girl Elsa that Johanne pines after.
Though Escape… is dramatically flawed, it could be salvageable with major editing and restructuring. So applaud the ambition of Ruckus Theatre, even if this version of Escape… should have ceased and desisted before it got to a fully staged production.