A wink away from parody

Six months after that screening, and less than two weeks before opening night of their tour, the StarKids shiver in the drafty audition space they've been renting for weeks above the Strawdog Theatre Company in Lakeview, running through songs for the tour — a kind of greatest-hits package. StarKid Jaime Lyn Beatty wears mittens, StarKid Meredith Stepien wears a coat and director Julia Albain is bundled in a scarf. The room resembles the set of "Rent," cluttered and randomly decorated.

Heat is nonexistent. StarKid Joe Walker explains to StarKid Dylan Saunders what to do if he forgets a lyric. "Point the microphone at the audience. They'll sing it all back," Walker says. Saunders nods.

He knows.

A young two-piece band (just drums and keyboards) slides into spacey opening music and the cast members step onto their imaginary stage, lined up one behind the other, moving in slow, exaggerated strides as if they were malfunctioning robots or walking on the moon. When they reach their microphone stands, the StarKids turn their backs to their imaginary audience. Then Richter pivots around and pleads out the opening lines: "I want to be a Starship Ranger/I wanna have the things they've got."

Arms and hips stay in sync, and as each StarKid spins around and sings a lyric, it's easier to imagine 'N Sync or the Osmonds than the cast of, say, "Rent." Richter, in particular, with thick Muppet eyebrows and puppy dog eyes, looks as if he's channeling decades of pop idols. My brain starts to assign pithy personalities: Richter's the sensitive one; Stepien's the goof; Walker's the lady's man; Saunders is the regular schmo; Beatty's the sad-eyed cynic; Holden's the nerdy one; and choreographer Lauren Lopez is the spunky one.

Fans say the same things again and again about StarKid. As 16-year-old Allegra Rosenberg, of Skokie, put it: "It's so low-fi, it's like something I could do, with a pop lexicon to dig into." Or as a girl from Lincolnshire explained earnestly: "I like (that) they're not corporate sellouts." Meaning, the StarKid sensibility is inside-jokey, knowingly amateurish, opaquely subversive, Up With People with irony, "Rocky Horror Picture Show" without sleaze. A mishmash of pop benchmarks, not great theater. Think "The Little Mermaid," not O'Neill. "This is the result of us being children of the Disney renaissance," Criss said. "And contemporary Broadway musicals."

A lot of StarKid songs celebrate friendship and the collective good, and yet are so overtly broad that everything always seems a wink away from being a parody of such sunshiny good spirits. At the University of Michigan, "the StarKids came off very Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney-'Let's put on a show' to me," says Philip Kerr, one of their theater professors. "But also a few steps ahead even then of where a young theater company might be because they were so smart about using the information age to reach the right audiences."

Indeed, before the last StarKid graduated in May, Kerr says the theater department was already receiving mail from all over the world addressed to them; John Neville-Andrews, the department's head of performance, says the university has even begun to routinely mention Team StarKid as a recruitment tool.

Indeed, a week after graduation, Criss signed with the CESD talent agency. When he mentioned his friends, Brady decided to represent the group. "But I sat them down and said, 'This is wonderful and creative, but the irony to what you do here is that if you don't take the Harry Potter thing down a notch, Warner Bros., which has the film and merchandise rights, are going to own your firstborn,'" he recalls. "So Brian posted an apology online, and the next day Darren got a call. They showed respect for the (Harry Potter) property, and it helped.

"The catch is, they can't make money from the thing they're most famous for. That's the deal."

The other setback is that they don't get much time with Criss now, though he remains involved creatively. After scattering around the country post-graduation, StarKid decided it needed a nonthreatening, central location to work on new material. "I think the feeling was we don't know what the goal is but we like being together, which is not a business plan but it is something worth holding on to," Walker says. Criss remained in LA and wrote "Starship" in his trailer on the set of "Glee"; nearly everyone else came to Chicago.

When they arrived, they sent letters of introduction to the major theater companies to endear themselves to the community. Says Bob Mason, casting director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, one of those who received their letter: "Chicago is a great place to start a theater company, but I wasn't sure what to make of them. Then their first show was so long. What kind of message is that to send? Not being certain of who they are may be a strong point. But it also sounds like energy shooting all over the place."

"Starship," their Chicago stage debut, opened in February with a dozen performances. Every one sold out. But three-plus hours of light musical sci-fi and references to "Alien" and "Starship Troopers" can be taxing on all but the hopelessly devoted, and the reviews were generally negative. Says Adam Belcuore, casting director for the Goodman Theatre: "I thought, 'They haven't grown into their ability to create a full theatrical evening yet. They also need an editor.' But it was thrilling to be in a room with kids screaming for theater."

Growing from small beans

On the other hand, during the past year, Team StarKid has been called to countless meetings with major theater producers in New York and record labels in Los Angeles. Holden admits "it's tough imagining a partnership (with a media conglomerate) because we want to be undefined as long as possible." When you've already produced yourself to No. 1 on iTunes, it's hard to say what a label can offer. Those meetings, though, Brady says, were often landed for one reason: Some executive has a young daughter.

But no one's making serious cash on this yet. Of the 20 or so members of StarKid, eight work full time for StarKid Productions, which Criss, Holden and classmates Nick and Matt Lang founded after college. "'Starship' soundtrack and T-shirt sales, that's what supports them," their agent says. "Though every single day I get emails from schools and theater groups that want to do 'Potter Musical.' And every single day I have to turn down every one of them, because if they sell one ticket under that name, it would come back and bite us."

What doesn't go into salary goes into producing new shows. And so the other StarKids are employed throughout Chicago as waiters, tour guides and even nannies to the very kids who adore them as StarKids. Some have landed commercials; others audition constantly. Stepien occasionally does stand-up comedy.

Their 21-city tour, like a lot of StarKid happenings, came together quickly. Last summer, they tentatively asked fans on Facebook where they should play if, you know, they ever toured. In September, Saunders met with Steve Gaber, who books tours for Live Nation. "We had the concept, the cities, everything in three weeks," Gaber says. Most of the dates sold out within a few days of going on sale; two shows at the 1,200-seat Irving Plaza in New York sold out in a minute. "We could have done more — they could have played the Chicago Theatre — but we didn't want to go crazy. They haven't toured yet, and it's better to underplay first."

After the tour?