Chicago Musical Theatre Festival introduces new works, suburban artists
Michael Gibson's dream came true this week.
On Wednesday, the McHenry native's musical "Nine Lives" premiered as part of the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival, Underscore Theatre's second annual showcase of new musicals by emerging theater artists.
"It's been a long journey," said Gibson, 31, of the four-year evolution of his darkly comic "modern myth" about a young man who cannot die. It's among 10 full-length shows and three one-acts showcased during the festival, which runs through July 19 at The Den Theatre in Chicago.
Originally conceived as a web series, "Nine Lives" earned a LAwebFest award in 2013. That prompted Gibson to submit the show to The New York Musical Theatre Festival last year, where it was a finalist. Encouraged, Gibson and co-writer Dewayne Perkins streamlined the script and submitted it to the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival.
"It's a huge honor," said Gibson, who calls music his first love and most enduring passion, one he shares with his students at Curie High School where he serves as music teacher and choir conductor.
"Music is part of me," he said, "so sharing my creations ... that is almost a dream come true."
As the festival's producer, Underscore is in the business of making dreams come true.
With the mission of exploring stories "through a musical lens," Underscore has premiered 14 new musicals since its founding in 2011.
"Musicals are our bread and butter," said Underscore executive producer Laura Stratford.
Underscore organized a mini-festival in 2013 to showcase one-acts. That gave rise to the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival, which fills the void left by the demise of "Stages," an annual festival of in-progress works that ran for years at the Chicago Theatre Building before it became Stage 773.
Stratford said Underscore offers artists the chance to see their work realized in front of an audience.
"Not a lot of companies produce first-run musicals, especially at the storefront level," she said. "It's important in the development of theater artists to see their work on stage so they learn how to improve their art."
Of the 45 submissions, Underscore ensemble members selected 13, including three one-acts, all of them production-ready, Stratford said. For two of them, Underscore is serving as producer. Their decision on which shows to include came down, in part, to what most excited them.
"We're always looking for a new show that will blow us away, that will tell us something or express something we didn't know how to articulate," she said.
Among them is "One Thousand Words" -- by writer/lyricist Michael Braud and composer Curran Latas -- about a writer researching a story of two men who fell in love during the 1940s.
"It's about having an open heart and loving people for the people they are instead of the traits they possess," said St. Charles native Megan Gill, whose character Elizabeth fights for the affection of the two men.
"This is the first time I've worked on a piece of theater that pierced my heart at every rehearsal," said Gill, 23. "It has so much potential."
Castmate Shaina Summerville, 24, agrees, calling the music "really, really beautiful."
The Rolling Meadows native said she welcomes the creative opportunities new musicals provide.
"With new works you have more leeway to make the part your own," said Summerville, who will appear in "Gypsy" at Williams Street Repertory in Crystal Lake in October.
Doing new works demands flexibility, said Alaina Wis, of Naperville, who plays a woman in love with an African-American man in "One Thousand Words."
"You have to be ready for anything, (including) changes up to the last minute," said Wis, 22.
This marks the first time Sarah Inendino, 29, has participated in a theater festival. The Schaumburg resident, who plays a sci-fi fan in American Demigods' production of "Fanatical" by Reina Hardy and Matt Board, said the collaboration has been "incredibly rewarding."
She says festivals like this allow artists and theater companies to take risks, and it allows audiences to connect with them in a different way in a more intimate setting.
"It brings you together as a community of theatergoers and creators," Inendino said.
As a platform for new writers and composers, the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival is invaluable, she said. It's a way for artists to say, "I've created something, it's special, and it needs your love and attention. This is a time for you to experience and be part of it."
Chicago Musical Theatre FestivalLocation: The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, (617) 777-0364 or thedentheatre.com
Showtimes: 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, noon to 9:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; through July 19. See cmtf.org for the full schedule.
Tickets: $15 for one-acts, $20 for full-length productions, $120 for an all-festival pass