The Chopin Theatre is set up with long tables and chairs for “Ploughed Under: An American Songbook,” a gutsy project at the House Theatre of Chicago that, demonstably, is very much the brainchild of Kevin O’Donnell, the composer and percussionist whose music has been the basis for many of the past shows at a company that devices almost all its own work. On each table sits a bound book of lyrics for the 17 numbers that make up this show. You will need them. It is very difficult to otherwise hear, understand and feel the lyrics.
Part of the problem here is that the 10 actor-singer-musicians standing on Collette Pollard’s resonantly designed stage (think Civil War rustic) are wearing head microphones that feed into a sound system — adequate, perhaps, for a traditional book musical but not for what’s basically a theatricalized concert, a songsuite of O’Donnell compositions that honor a variety of unsung American heroes from a while ago: the likes of Molly Pitcher (a legendary figure said to have fought in the Battle of Monmouth in 1778), Joaquin Murrieta (a figure of the California Gold Rush) and Virginia Dare (born in 1587, the first American child of English parents).
Since the whole conceit here is to draw attention to the overlooked heroes of American history (although it might be a stretch to call Casey Jones overlooked), and since the spoken text is minimal, that means that O’Donnell has to pack his lyrics with narrative information: lines like “Joaquin Murrieta is the name of a man / Raised in Mexico, but still Ame-ri-can.” In most of these songs, performed as a mix of solos, small group numbers and rousing company singalongs, there is so much biographical information that it starts to come at the expense of the feeling of the characters. And in these circumstances — a big crew of singer-musicians (better musicians than singers, on balance) falling somewhere between singing these songs concert-style and acting them out — it becomes difficult to tell where O’Donnell is going, beyond a very honorable history lesson about the contributions of remarkable, overlooked Americans.
I’ve long had enormous respect for O’Donnell’s music, which has one foot in experimental composition and another in the Americana and parlor music tradition of the 19th century, ascendedent here. He also is a remarkable percussionist. But this is a heavy assignment (O’Donnell directed the show, composed the score and leads the band), and he could have used an outside eye that might have found more light and shade to cut the pervasive tone of period earnestness. That tone tends to wash over a laudably ambitious piece that now needs more contrast, clarity and heart.
firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib
'Ploughed Under' -- 2 stars
Through June 9 at Chopin Theatre Upstairs, 1543 W. Division St.; 2 hours; $25 at 773-769-3832 or thehousetheatre.com
Copyright © 2015, RedEye