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“Rooms: A Rock Romance” a Fervent Punk Era Musical
‘ROOMS: A Rock Romance’
When: Through Aug.11
Where: Broken Nose Theatre at Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee
Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission
There are moments when the world outside a theater can serve as the ideal scene-setter for what is about to take place on stage. Take this past Saturday night on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park. Wild scene. Crazy traffic. Lots of alcohol. Nubile girls in fishnets, short shorts and not much else. A whole lot of noise.
And then there’s that ancient elevator in the Flat Iron Arts Building that takes you to the third floor performance space where Broken Nose Theatre Company is presenting the knockout Chicago premiere of “Rooms: A Rock Romance.”
A two-person musical backed by a terrific four-man band, “Rooms” is set in Glasgow, London and New York at the height of the punk era. And with its grungy-chic streets and blaring bar music, the Wicker Park vibe seemed in complete synch with the world of this hard-driving, emotion-filled musical with its score by Scotland-born Paul Scott Goodman, its book by Goodman and Miriam Gordon, propulsive direction by Benjamin Brownson and galvanic music direction by Austin Cook.
Of course the impact of the show lies with its performers, and they are remarkable. With her great mane of curly reddish hair and a powerhouse voice that suggests she might well be a “Funny Girl” star or young Mama Rose in the making, Hillary Marren is a pure force of nature as Monica, the Scottish-Jewish princess with an enormous life force and unstoppable ambition. Matt Deitchman, ideally cast as her temperamental opposite, plays Ian, a sullen Glasgow-bred Catholic — a singer-songwriter who clutches his flask of alcohol every bit as closely as his guitar, and a singer who can make a mighty vocal wail when necessary.
They meet cute in Glasgow, in 1977. Through a friend, Monica, who is from a loving, prosperous middle class family, and is hellbent on a singing career, contacts Ian with an offer to write a Bat Mitzvah tribute for a relative. He is a high-minded loner — a university-educated working class kid with an alcoholic dad — and he accepts the offer because he needs the money. There also is a powerful “click” between them, though clearly this is the start of a volatile relationship — one in which Monica is forever pushing forward (her anthem is “All I Want Is Everything”), and Ian (who sings about “Fear of Flying”), is continually in self-destruct mode.
A winning contest entry gets the pair to London, and then they’re off to New York, and CBGB, and a record contract and “the scene.” It’s all too much for Ian who flees when Monica unexpectedly gets pregnant. Over the next couple of years both their lives change and then, as the show’s opening scene signals, Ian walks back in the door.
Almost entirely sung-through, “Rooms” seamlessly alternates between pure punk and a Broadway-style rock sound as it captures the couple’s punk performances and the highs and lows of their personal relationship. Musical director-pianist Austin Cook (back in Chicago after 18 months with the national tour of “Millon Dollar Quartet”), does a superb job here, backed by Sam Brownson (guitar), Chuck Zayas (bass) and Matthew Sitz (percussion) — a band the show aptly dubs The Diabolicals.