Theater

Review: Verböten, the punk music, rocks House Theatre of Chicago

“Punk is dead,” circa 1978. 

In unassuming Evanston in 1983, Verböten added their name to the other off-putting punk band names like Suicidal Tendencies, Social Distortion, Black Flag, The Misfits, and Germ Shepherd.

This four-member band had been putting their time, soul, and angst into their music. It was their “Psycho Therapy” for dealing with divorce, quality time with family, alcoholism, country clubs, absent parents, over-involved parents, adoption, and Ronald Reagan.

Through this blitzkrieg bop the band gets an invite to play the gritty Cubby Bear in Chicago. Rather than suffer a “Teenage Lobotomy,” they get to attend “Rock n Rock High School.” What more can four 11-year-old punk rockers ask for? 

The House Theatre of Chicago presents the world premiere of Verböten, with music and lyrics by Jason Narducy, book by Brett Neveu, and directed by The House Theatre’s artistic director, Nathan Allen, at the Chopin Theater in Chicago. It is scheduled to run Thursdays through Sundays until March 8.

This punk rock musical was inspired by Narducy’s real-life experiences with his pre-teen punk band of the same name: Verböten. According to Narducy’s program note, it’s more like historical fiction: some truth, some embellishment. The process of converting his life experience into music and lyrics sounded to have been long and involved, as it should be. 

If you are older than 35, walking into the auditorium of The Chopin Theater in Wicker Park should cause you flashbacks to the mottled browns of the late 70’s: carpet on the walls, afghan on the back of an earth tone, floral print love seat flanked by a hexagon end table/liquor cabinet. The set itself is compact and emotes the time period and is very functional.

The story focuses on Jason (Kieran McCabe), the brooding songwriter and guitar player for Verböten. You are introduced to the lead singer and bandleader, Tracey (Krystal Ortiz), their drunken bass player, Chris (Matthew Lunt), and the identity-seeking drummer, Zack (Jeff Kurysz). They are supported and opposed by the adults in their lives: Jason’s dad, (Ray Rehberg), Jason’s stepdad, (Jimmy Chung), Tracy’s adopted parents, (Paul Bring Fagen & Jenni M. Hadley), Chris’ sister, (Markika Mashburn), Zack’s dad, (Marc A. Rogers), and the drummer, (Timothy Daniel Remis). When not playing their characters nearly all cast members are involved in playing live music to support the show as either back-up or underscoring for scenes. The element of the actors playing their own instruments live on stage adds to the energy and rock concert atmosphere of the show.

Verböten is a modern musical, so the songs help inform you about the life of each character. Jason is fixated on adjusting to his new life by writing “Broken Home” which turns into the band’s anthem. Chris deals with absent parents and a sister who uses him as her drinking buddy. Zack and Tracey have tremendous parental support but still are trying to express themselves and find their identity despite having parents the other bandmates would take faster than a Johnny Ramone guitar riff. 

There are 18 songs in the show. The kids’ songs are all punk: dirty, distorted guitar, pounding, seat-shaking bass, machine-gun drumming, and grating, often snarled or screamed vocals. But within each song there is a different expression of punk and the life of the character. The parents get to strike back with 60s- and 70s-inspired rock song styles. The battle of generations is played out in musical form as well. This is best exemplified in “Set Me Free,” a song between Jason and his dad where one sings punk and the other rock. The frame was set for a guitar battle between father and son but did not take that turn. 

The show flowed nicely until the second act. The band, as nearly all bands do, was beginning to fray its edges: doubt, insecurity, pressures from within and without were taking their toll. It was in this rising tension that Chris’ sister chips in her reasons for making Chris an 11-year-old drunk. It was one number that could have come sooner or not at all. Otherwise, everything progressed smoothly and time flew by.

The power of punk is the need to speak the truth even if it is uncomfortable and painful. It doesn’t seek to sugar coat reality. Jason tries to play off his hurt of “Broken Home” by claiming he’s just playing a character, but the bruises on his face tell a different story.

There is a great moment when the band rehearses that song for the first time. Allen did a wonderful job of recreating the moment of synergy when multiple artists come together to create something together. You can see and hear the connection between these friends as they share their fear and their pain together through music: confidence grows, the song expands and evolves, and their friendship is cemented in bass slaps and snare shots.

The Chopin Theater is easily accessible from McHenry County off Interstate 90 and Verböten is well worth the trip.

The earnestness of the characters and the energy of the show should satisfy any music lover. You can even wear your leather pants, an old Clash T-shirt and feel right at home. Save yourself a trip to the Cubby Bear and relive the greatest days of a tween punk band now. Verböten is now zulässig.

Check them out at thehousetheatre.com or call 773.769.3832

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