By: Jamie Shriner
At: The Understudy, 4609 N. Clark St. Tickets: UnderscoreTheatre.org; $20-$25. Runs through: Dec. 9
Jamie Shriner is defiant in sharing her private life onstage.
Her musical Wife Material, produced by Underscore Theatre Company and playing at the company's Understudy space, unfurls Shriner's sexual history and romantic woes for the audience, giving her the chance to decide whether or not she has it in her to be the kind of uncomplicated, domesticated wife society expects of her. If the musical does not quite justify its need for the audience to watch her work through that problem, it does provide laughs and a few entertaining songs that had people cheering the night I attended.
This production was adapted from Shriner's one-woman show, which also addressed her love of sex, her bisexuality and her restriction by a patriarchal society that requires her either to be an angel or a whore. She smartly expands the cast to include Caitlin Dobbins and Natalie Rae, playing Angie and Luci, the angel and devil on the shoulder who take on the traits of all the men and women with whom Shriner shares her time. Director Dana Anderson shapes the performance around the changing physicalities of Dobbins and Rae, and the results lead to wonderful sight gags involving Satan and Jesus arriving on the scene, as well as each performer accurately transitioning into the slouches of an angsty teen musician and the predatory leans of cat-callers. Anderson moves Shriner around Nicholas Schwartz's small bar set as if she is a singer at a cocktail lounge, and that attitude and confidence helps keep the audience involved, even when the musical's narrative becomes hard to invest in.
Shriner's "teen with a reputation" years in Indiana, and her messier adult years in Chicago, should make for a relatable experience. There were tons of laughs of recognition or groans of sympathy throughout the performance. But there are so many vignettes packed into this hour and a half show that parsing what matters and what might be a one-off joke is difficult. Shriner's fierceness in sharing ugly moments, hypocrisy, toxic masculinity, and sexual longing is admirable. But none of the relationships we see her engage in have enough time onstage for the viewer to care whether or not Jamie finds answers within them. So it begins to feel as if we are watching a therapy workout, rather than a narrative collaboration between audience and actor.
That said, Shriner's music is delightful, with her girl group/power ballad sound mixing well with lyrics that touch on contemporary hookups and self-love in surprising and funny ways. And music director Kyra Leigh brings energy to the band that adds life to the performance. If Wife Material doesn't say anything new about the power of identity and sexuality, at least it leaves people humming a tune.