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Theater Review:

"CITY GIRL!" at the Neo-Futurarium

BY LUCIA MAURO

The Neo-Futurists have pioneered a rare form of self-referential theater that floats somewhere between dramatic sleight of hand and wildly profound, tongue-in-cheek observations. So nothing is quite exactly as it appears at the Neo-Futurists. Noelle Krimm’s and Jonathan Mastro’s "City Girl!" – billed as the company’s very first musical – is both a bonafide musical and a vehicle for critiquing the musical-theater format and its inherent cliches. "City Girl!" doesn’t deconstruct itself as much as it puts on display the shallowness of musical-theater conventions.

Ultimately, it raises the question, "Is your life – (or anyone’s life for that matter) – stage worthy?" To convey that point, the Neo-Futurists play a clever and paradoxically hilarious-tragic switcheroo on audiences. Without totally giving away the surprise, suffice it to say that someone associated with the behind-the-scenes crew and the "star" reverse roles. Yet the result can be as superficial as the standard romantic-comedy plot line.

Yes, the Neo-Futurists love to mess with our minds. But they don’t forget to entertain us in the midst of their brainy and diabolical conjectures. "City Girl"! features Krimm’s sweet and acerbic lyrics, vibrantly paired with Mastro’s and Krimm’s genre-bounding compositions (show tunes, ballads, country, rock ‘n’ roll, pop). Unlike most new musicals (with the exception of Broadway’s "Urinetown," penned by former Neo-Futurist Greg Kotis), "City Girl!" boasts an endless stream of hummable ditties (even if they’re parodies of every musical formula). In fact, an erotic twist on nursery rhymes, called "Read Me a Bedtime Story," should be shopped to Christina Aguilera.

As far as plot, the show can and cannot be so easily summed up. Its basic premise, however, is that Krimm (who also stars and co-directs with Jess Pillmore) is trying to adjust to life in the big city after moving to a callous, anonymous urban center from a small town, whose enigmatic "values" she so desperately tries to uphold.

But Krimm – who is also putting on a show about this old-as-the-hills country-city transformation -- keeps getting interrupted by the sardonic voice of her alter-ego director. All the elements of musical theater -- chirpy songs, goofy supporting characters, the unconvincing use of one actor in multiple roles, rapid-fire resolutions, euphemistic approaches to uncomfortable issues, and the wacky need to break into song – are savagely skewered behind plastic smiles.

Krimm later abandons her own production. Her alter ego’s demand for honesty arrives in the form of the stage manager. But as the final run-through of this musical-within-a-musical-lambasting proves, even the most socially conscious, politically aware and sexy approaches to the form can ring false. That sort of heroine is just too good to be true; and the contrived idealization of the underdog can be rife with its own hypocrisies.

"City Girl!" – which clocks in at a very brisk 75 minutes – does not pretend to be a polished product. In fact, it has its awkward and amateurish moments – but they, too, are masterfully crafted to convey the overriding theme of theater’s inability to convey reality in its omni-complexities. In addition to Krimm, a tender-hearted force with congenial conviction (whose presence we feel more pointedly during her later absence), Dana Cruz delivers a stellar performance equal to musical director-accompanist Mastro’s and Krimm’s eclectic, vocally challenging score.

The supporting cast of Karen Weinberg, Tom Arvetis, John Byrnes, Mary Theresa Archbold and Steve Mosqueda leap from style to style with self-satiric grace.
And, although I left pondering the multiple meanings of this exhilarating anti-musical, I’m now tempted to head back to the Neo-Futurarium to buy some show-related merchandise -- especially the soundtrack.

"City Girl!’ runs through May 25 at the Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland. Tickets: $8-$12. Call 773-275-5255 or log onto www.neofuturists.org.

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