Chicago Theater Review: FLIES! THE MUSICAL! (Pride Films and Plays at the Pride Arts Center)

by Lawrence Bommer on May 12, 2018

in Theater-Chicago

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YOUR FLIES! IS OPEN

The running joke behind this unauthorized musical based on a 1954 novel and a 1963 film is how it hides its homage: To avoid copyright infringement, we never hear “Flies” and “Lord” in the same sentence. Critics, happily, needn’t be so coy: A world premiere from Pride Films & Plays, Flies! The Musical! is a sassy, co-ed updating of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In the novel, purportedly innocent British choir boys go feral when abandoned on an uninhabited tropical island, proving, well, whatever you want it to.

Combining elements of Glee, Waiting for GuffmanHeart of Darkness, and High School: The Musical, this nearly 90-minute confection, with diverting melodies by Cindy O’Connor and book and lyrics by Larry Todd Cousineau, delivers a twisted tribute to a once seriously scary story. Instead of a plane crash leaving them literally insular, the young contingent (who don’t quite turn cannibalistic) are a rag-tag bunch of drama devotees from Lovely Valley High School. Abandoning all smartphones to go “back to nature,”  they’re rehearsing the teacher-written musical that they’re also in: They’ve isolated themselves in an abandoned state park, a forlorn forest preserve from which a mom forgets to pick them up.

Characters sort of familiar from the novel and film versions include: Pigtails (Missy Wise), the supposedly near-sighted chief nerd; Jake (Jeff Meyer), the Alpha teen who, vying for leadership with good guy Rick (Mario Aivazian), belts out how “The Strong Survive”; a shy loner and vegan Stephen (Nicky Mendelsohn); Shy Girl (Christea Parent), also bashful and soon to disappear; and fledglings Young’Un 1 and Young’Un 2 (Joey Fontanetta and Ryan Armstrong) who just can’t be twins because they’re boyfriends. Finally, Rhonda (Jayla Williams-Craig) is a “mean girl” cheerleader who belts out the pom pom anthem “Kill! Kill! Kill!” because she’s having a very bad day.

Whether contemplating vandalizing a vending machine, vying for power (“The Leader Song”), or exuding false confidence (“We’ve Got it Covered”), a group ethic seems to get them through the crises: It’s the nebulous goal of “trusting the process,” a bromide that means everything and nothing.

In short order, as life imitates art, the darkening doings of these unchaperoned theater geeks mirror the war-painted choirboys’ descent into tribal madness. The “lord of the flies” they worship is no pig skull but a to-go box of pork chops left out by Park Ranger Pat (the appropriately named Christea Parent), who to her peril “rescues” them at the end. Instead of a giant boar, they imagine a stalking bear, any excuse for fear to sanction violence. But, until the bitter end, the action never sinks to slaughter (unlike Lord of the Flies where “Piggy” and his glasses become a human sacrifice).

Carefully avoiding rip-off risks (“The Lord of the [Blank]”), the songs chronicle the kids’ confusion: The calypso-style “Conch’a Hear It?” briefly acknowledges the shell that lets someone speak (and then gets lost on stage). “How Far Would You Go?” tests their willingness to push other folks’ limits. “The Passage of Time” is a meta-theatrical dig at how plots can self-shorten. “Eat Me, Stephen” invokes Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, while pantheistic Stephen’s “The Flora and the Fauna” is an excuse to assemble a hilarious puppet menagerie created by Adam McAleavey. An aria of doomed defiance, Wise’s big solo “I Won’t Be Left Out Again” is Pigtails’ lament against being marginalized. (Echoing the audience’s insecurities, she also loudly wonders whether she’s the only one who read the novel.)

“Everyone’s Inherently Bad!” is their musical’s pessimistic finale, to be replaced after they’re rescued with the tap-dancing, feel-good rouser “Everybody’s Inherently Good!” This production number — the park ranger’s salute to Broadway happy endings — is not the last outburst, however. Forever altered, the un-rescued Lovely Valley gang croon “From This Day On,” a morbid salute to a Trump-like “new normal” where morality and perhaps sanity are all “post” whatever.

By the end it’s a bit inconclusive whether this artful camp concoction is more than just a stylistic experiment in hipster irreverence. Aside from modernized pop-culture references and occasional hints at angst circa 2018, this show adds little to its source and its cynical ending feels unearned.

But, no question, Michael Driscoll’s staging, Sawyer Smith’s choreography, and JD Caudill’s musical direction combine with eight well-cast, convincing performers to turn a travesty into contagious fun. The unpleasantness here is that it really doesn’t matter if you read the novel or saw the films. For better or worse, Flies! The Musical! holds its own on its own.

photos by Paul Goyette

Flies! The Musical!
Pride Films and Plays
Pride Arts Center – The Broadway, 4139 N. Broadway
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 5
ends on June 10, 2018
for tickets, call 773.857.0222 or visit Pride Films and Plays

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kay Boehme May 20, 2018 at 4:20 pm

I need the running time for Flies!

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Frank A. May 20, 2018 at 6:22 pm

I just read the review, and your answer is right there in the second paragraph: almost 90 minutes. Jeez, doesn’t anybody read anymore?!

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