Smile Politely

Fugitive Songs packs the house at Rose Bowl Tavern

Photo of eight people singing in a bar against the background of a red and wood stage. One blonde woman is at a single microphone and the others are grouped around two other microphones.
L to R: Stephen Burdsall, Francesco Console, Frida Guerra, Kathryn King, Lauren Zimmerman, Maya Cornejo, Kyle Widener, Christopher Commiso; Photo by Hayley Stachniak

The essence of a good story is its relatability. When you see yourself reflected in the characters and story on stage, that’s the magic of theatre. Of course, with a musical, a great score with clever lyrics is an integral part of the equation. In a musical song cycle of nineteen vignettes connected by a burning desire to run away and start over, Fugitive Songs, presented by the University of Illinois’ Lyric Theatre @ Illinois (LTI), is a musical journey with “road markers” familiar to us all: How do we overcome obstacles and limitations in a system set against us, and arrive at a better version of ourselves?

The answer is a wistful 90 minutes of yearning set to a score with a blend of folk, bluegrass, soft rock, and contemporary pop music styles that both sting and soar. Directed by Sarah Wigley and with musical direction by Carl Pantle, Fugitive Songs is a musical treat. Composed by Chris Miller with lyrics by Nathan Tysen (the songwriting duo behind the musical adaptation of Natalie Babbitt’s classic young adult novel, Tuck Everlasting), Fugitive Songs premiered off-Broadway in March 2008, garnering a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Musical Revue.

Despite the potentially weighty material, the piece is uplifting. Each character becomes a “fugitive” for one reason or another. In “Spring Cleaning,” one young woman aims for a fresh start by throwing things out, including her boyfriend. In “The Subway Song,” a young man doesn’t want to dead end in his fast-food job, likening himself to “Han Solo frozen in carbonite” and speaks of “Our generation’s cancer/Terrified of being trapped/Searching for an answer” as he asks, “You wanna six-inch or a foot-long?” In “Don’t Say Me,” a former cheerleader leaves her husband, the former quarterback, who can’t seem to stop reliving his high school football star glory days.

Photo of three white singers in rehearsal singing. One has long hair and a red shirt. The other two are blonde with glasses and one in the back wears a light blue hoodie.
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts

Director Sarah Wigley’s staging pays respect to each song’s unique story while stitching together the fabric that connects one to the next. In her signature style, Wigley has encouraged each student performer to find the truth in these stories, creating cohesion where there is a potential disconnect in the hands of a less capable storyteller.

Opting for a cast of nine instead of the six as written, we’re treated to three additional fabulous voices, a testament to LTI’s commitment to providing students with opportunities to shine. And shine, they do! From the opening notes to the very last, these young singers give a performance easily worth twice the price of admission. Consisting of Stephen Burdsall, Christopher Commiso, Franceso Console, Maya Cornejo, Frida Guerra, Kathryn King, Catheryn Kuhar, Kyle Widener, and Lauren Zimmerman, this cast understands the importance of the ensemble to this piece. Indeed, the most musically thrilling moments often occur during the full ensemble numbers. No performer is better than another. Each occupies a specific niche of talent, vocal ability, and emotional capacity as an actor.

Pantle expertly leads a four-piece band from the piano, with Eldon Warner on guitar, Andrey Goncalves on the bass, and Maddi Vogel on the drums. Together, they are the crucial tenth member of this ensemble, contributing as much to the storytelling as the lyrics and the singers. Watching them groove together in the various musical styles was among the best parts of the afternoon.

Rose Bowl Tavern was an excellent, if slightly too small, venue for the performance. The entrance queue was wrapped around the building ahead of the show, and it was “standing room only” once inside. If this says anything, it’s that there is a clear demand in the area for good stories with great music told earnestly with a lot of heart.

If you missed Fugitive Songs at the Rose Bowl, LTI will present the performance twice more this month. With a great score sung by some truly talented young performers and stories that are still timely nearly twenty years later, LTI’s Fugitive Songs will surely strike a chord with anyone fortunate enough to experience it.

Fugitive Songs
Canopy Club
708 S Goodwin
Sa Apr 13th, 7 p.m.
$10 to $15

Krannert Center Stage 5 Lobby
500 S Goodwin
Th Apr 25th, 5 p.m.

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