Illinois Theatre Center
Perhaps you've read them, those passion-filled pages of illustrated stories chronicling the joys and perils of love (Gasp! Sigh!), true love. They're romance comic books of the 1950s, and during that decade they outsold all other categories of comic books, providing postwar adolescent females with the motivation to settle down and raise a family: tales of true passion, fashion tips, dating advice, and advertisements for bust developers, dance lessons, and opportunities in careers full of eligible men.
It's from these pages that Sarah Schlesinger and David Evans conjure up their new musical comedy Love Comics, premiering at the Illinois Theatre Center, located way out in Park Forest. Romance comics seem a clever subject for a musical: the plots are lively, the characters are colorful, and the subject--love--is always an appropriate one to set to music. In writing this spoof of 1950s Americana, Schlesinger and Evans wisely stole from every page of the comics--including the advertising--to provide some campy moments. Phrases like "Puff! Puff! I'm almost home!" and "Be the first in your set to get one!" weasel their way into the dialogue. A man sees a woman and lets out a testosterone-laden "Gee!" In an ad, a woman testifies that she found respect, excitement, and a wealthy doctor through her new career in nursing.
Director Steve Billig does his best to give us a fast-paced, polished show; Ed Kross's choreography is witty and lively; and Stephen E. Moore's costumes provide a colorful spoof of each character. Actually Love Comics has just about everything a good musical needs--except good music. Evans's score lacks variety and emotional depth, a problem exacerbated by the tinny-sounding synthesizer used for all the numbers. Up-tempo love songs with punchy lyrics get dull the ninth or tenth time.
The plot deals with the love quest of Andrea, Felice, Troy, and Kyle, American youths whose overwhelming character flaws threaten to condemn them to lonely spinsterdoms and bachelorhoods. Felice (Barbara Helms) is far too brainy to ever attract a man. Andrea (Rachel Rockwell), while dumb enough to catch a fellow, is too free with her affections to hold on to one. Troy (Matthew Orlando), the richest guy in town, is forever chased by money-grubbing women; Kyle (Michael Crafton) suffers simply from a broken heart.
Despite their individual curses, all four manage to fall in love in a matter of seconds. Andrea meets Troy at the drive-in diner where she works as a roller-skating car hop. They kiss, birds chirp, paper hearts fall from above, and Andrea exclaims that the 12 seconds of their relationship are the most intense she's ever spent. Troy proposes to Andrea with a big shiny diamond. Andrea swoons on acceptance. In the meantime, Felice meets Troy briefly and without even knowing his name falls madly in love. Upon learning of his engagement to Andrea, Troy's mother immediately sends him on a tour of the world and hires Kyle as a detective to snoop out Andrea's gold-digging motives. Kyle, of course, falls in love with Andrea. Andrea returns his affections. Troy finds out about Andrea and Kyle. He's crushed by her betrayal. Andrea is crushed by confusion. Kyle is crushed because Andrea deceived him. And Felice is crushed by rejection. By the end of the first act, all four characters have unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide.
In a refreshing respite from such high drama the voice of "the Editor" (Billig) interrupts periodically to provide fatherly advice, followed by an advertisement (performed by Liz Donothan and Kross) for some product sure to help "readers" find their own path to true love.
Ultimately, this barrage of melodrama undermines the efforts of Billig's talented cast. Every moment of this musical is hyperdramatic, making it impossible for any real tension to build. Perhaps the music could have filled the emotional void, by adding nuance absent from the script. Or perhaps Schlesinger and Evans could have developed a more striking point of view. In the end of Love Comics, everyone (of course) finds true love because that's the way a love comic is supposed to end. It used to be a musical had to end that way too. But that changed a long time ago, right around the time love comics started to disappear from the drugstore racks. Perspectives on love, comic books, and even musical theater have shifted dramatically from those in the 50s. Had Schlesinger and Evans acknowledged this difference, they would have come up with a far richer piece of theater.