Verböten has some sharp songs, but the book sags | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Theater Review

Verböten has some sharp songs, but the book sags

Jason Narducy and Brett Neveu's portrait of a 1983 teen punk band needs more edge.

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UPDATE Friday, March 13: this event has been canceled. Refunds available at point of purchase.


The opening tune Jason Narducy penned for his autobiographically inspired musical about a teen punk band in 1983 is a stunner. "New Song" is up there with Fiddler's "Tradition!" or A Chorus Line's "I Hope I Get It." Performed by Narducy's onstage alter ego Kieran McCabe, the number is simply astonishing, a song with the power to light up your heart and send you scrambling for your lighter (because before cell phones, we used actual fire to urge musicians on to an encore). Verböten also ends with a mighty noise. When the titular high school punk band unleashes "Goodnight," a flood of pure joy and unstoppable adrenaline overtakes the theater. Directed by Nathan Allen, Verböten has great potential.

In between the opener and the finale, however, that potential is squandered by a book, written by Brett Neveu, sodden with self-indulgence, underwritten characters, and cringeworthy dialogue that often sounds like a particularly overwrought after-school special.

Neveu's book needs to be scrapped until someone can come up with a plot that doesn't feel like an elaborate exercise in vanity and/or therapy. At this point in Verböten's life, there's nothing about Jason and his bandmates that can support a full musical. Their issues are prosaic: They roll their eyes at the parents they think are clueless. They wish they were older. There is an attempt to bring domestic violence into the plot, but it's so out of left field that it feels contrived, a manipulative attempt to gin up a crisis just before intermission, not because that's where the story leads, but because musicals generally need to have a crisis right before intermission.

As it follows bandmates Jason, Zack (Jeff Kurysz), Tracey (Krystal Ortiz), and Chris (Matthew Lunt), Verböten shows how music provides an outlet and a sense of belonging for teens struggling to find their places in the world. The problem is their behind-the-music struggles. If you're going to write about yourself, you need a ruthless editor to tell you when you're boring and navel-gazing. That's missing here. Watching Verböten is akin to reading somebody else's teenage diary. There's a lot of het-up Sturm Und Drang, but none of it is as interesting or momentous as the author thinks.

The score deserves another pass. The numbers that bookend the piece are extraordinary. The others, not so much. Percussively, they tend to sound similar. Finally, Allen has his cast emoting at an 11 throughout. That's impressive in terms of sheer stamina, but it makes for a static production. If tooth-gnashing and big, screaming feels are the default, they lose their intensity and their urgency.

Verböten could be great. But first, it needs significant fine-tuning.  v

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