Toward the end of “Verböten” at The House Theatre of Chicago, when the members of the eponymous Evanston punk rock band finally put aside their arguments and angst to get up onstage at the Cubby Bear and play, what we see is a film clip of the actual band performing.
And it comes as a shock.
Fronted by then 11-year-old guitarist Jason Narducy, who wrote the music and lyrics for this semi-autobiographical world premiere, the musicians—singer Tracey, Chris, and Zack—are all in their early teens, as they were in 1982-83 during the band's brief 15-month existence.
But the actors we've been watching portray them at that time are supposed to be in their late teens or maybe even a tad older. This may be part of the reason that playwright Brett Neveu's book for the show is disappointing. The kids are preoccupied with things, especially their parents' influence, that seem more appropriate for the younger age group, and much of their dialogue is lame.
The only big question is whether or not they'll pull it together enough to play the Cubby Bear gig, and that gets a little lost in the parent-child relationships, which are rather schematic. Jason's (Kieran McCabe) parents are divorced, and he's chosen to live with his dad (Ray Rehberg) so he doesn't have to move away from his friends. But they fight all the time, leading to an abusive incident that comes across as gratuitous. Jason's step-dad (Jimmy Chung), on the other hand, is totally supportive, especially about his passion for music.
Tracey's (Krystal Ortiz) mom (Jenni M. Hadley) and dad (Paul Brian Fagen) are very loving, if a bit clueless, and a lot is made of the fact that she's adopted. Drummer Zack (Jeff Kurysz) is mortified by his father (Marc A. Rogers), who lets the band practice in his basement and whose only sin seems to be showing off his knowledge of the music he thinks the kids love. Guitarist Chris (Matthew Lunt) alternately spars and parties with his sister (Marika Mashburn), a hard-drinking, drug-taking bad influence.
The good news is that Narducy's songs are better than the script, and some of them even effectively further the plot. Jason's opener, “New Song,” sets the tone for what's to follow, and the ensemble's closing “Goodnight” caps the evening nicely. In between are some angry punk outpourings, of course, but also a heart-tugger called “Broken Home” that goes through several variations including Jason's solo, two takes by Tracey, and their duet “concert version.” Chris' sister gets the potent torch song “I Can't Count on Love,” while Zack's dad leads on the amusing “Rock Dreams Never Die.”
I'm not a huge fan of punk, so I found the musical theater-style numbers more appealing, but credit goes to both music director/arranger Matthew Muniz and sound designer Grover Hollway for keeping the noise level bearable.
Also good news, Ortiz's Tracey has a terrific voice, and McCabe's Jason is almost as good. He's also a very sympathetic character, no surprise in what is essentially a vanity project, though he's sometimes closer to a sullen preteen than pent-up late teen. The rest of the performances vary in quality, and director Nathan Allen tends to go for all-out, full-force energy, which doesn't always serve the material as well as more subtlety would.
Lee Keenan's multi-platform scenic design relies on a lot of stained yellow-gold carpeting to achieve that 1980s effect, and his lighting varies from room-friendly to club-concert-worthy.
Overall, “Verböten” is the kind of show that suits The House aesthetic perfectly. It just needs a more dramatic, more compelling script and a fair amount of fine-tuning.