Theater Review: By Raymond Benson

Cast of Signal Theatre's The Next Big Thing (photo courtesy of Signal Theatre Ensemble).

April 29, 2014 - It’s very difficult to do a stage play about the motion picture industry, but Signal Ensemble Theatre’s latest production of an original musical premiere, The Next Thing, pulls it off with style and genuine affection. The piece mercilessly pokes fun at Hollywood and its tendency to sacrifice art and truth in exchange for commercial “crap,” as one character puts it, but it’s also apparent that the authors, cast, and crew also love that other side of show biz. Perhaps the moral of the piece is that it’s all well and good to sacrifice everything for art, but one must also make a living.

With a book by Signal’s co-artistic director Ronan Marra (who also directed the show) and music and lyrics by ensemble member Jon Steinhagen (who plays the entire accompaniment on piano backstage), The Next Thing concerns the hate-love relationship between a sophisticated “serious” British actress, Kate Cunningham (winningly played by Courtney Jones) and her Hollywood co-star in a summer blockbuster—the shallow, not-too-bright, but popular hunky movie star, Conor Williams (portrayed by Christopher Selefski with just the right amount of smarmy smiles and eye-twinkling).

Kate and Conor have been signed to make four big filmsfor producer Laura Golden (Eleanor Katz), who cares about nothing but the weekend’s grosses in millions (“Is there any other monetary unit?”). Hack director Sam Donovan (realized by Signal’s other co-artistic director, Joseph Stearns, with the right touch of cynicism and wry humor) really wants to do an indie art film that won’t make any money but would satisfy his yearning to create real art. The Kate/Conor storyline is basically that of boy-meets-girl, girl-despises-boy and boy-detests-girl, and then, of course, boy-loves-girl and visa versa. There’s not a lot of meat there, but the witty and melodic songs carry the audience through a series of terrific numbers, quite a lot of laughs, and performances by an ensemble of entertaining characters.

Highlighting the production with particular brilliance are three actors who portray multiple roles. Nearly stealing the show is Elizabeth Bagby, cast in three parts—her pornstar “Lexi Licorice” provides the biggest laughs of the evening. Taylor Okey and Stephanie Wohar are also excellent standouts. Vincent L. Lonergan, a Signal Ensemble member who has been seen in many of the theater’s productions, has a wonderful moment as a mad scientist breeding zombies in one of Laura Golden’s silly money-making ventures. This sequence is one of the several films-within-the-play, as the actors take the audience through the making of some “Golden Productions,” all of which are illustrated with hilarious movie-posters in the theater lobby. Kudos to Melania Lancy on the simple and effective “movie theater” set design.

This is light, enjoyable entertainment, exemplified in the catchy and most memorable number in the show, “The Best Ideas (Happen When You’re Smashed).” Staged with free-flowing scene-changes and an exuberance from the cast that is infectious, perhaps The Next Thing’s only weakness is a first act that needs some tightening of the pace and a bigger opening production number; otherwise, this is great fun. Signal Ensemble Theatre is simply one of Chicago’s best kept secrets; it’s a company that always does exceptional quality work.

Signal Theatre's The Next Thing a Hilarious Romp