By Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune reporter
November 10, 2011
For those not familiar with Team StarKid (hello there, fellow oldsters!), a quick primer. Hatched when its members were theater undergrads at the University of Michigan — some of whom graduated only six months ago — this musical theater collaborative became an Internet phenomenon when a crude video of their "Harry Potter" stage parody made its way onto the laptop screens of teenage girls everywhere. Entertainment Weekly went on to name it one of the best viral videos of 2009.
Upstarts or not, the troupe has chops and enthusiasm to spare, and if you need something more concrete to hang your hat on, one of the group's founders (and the main creative force musically and lyrically) is Darren Criss, who plays Blaine on "Glee."
Criss wasn't at Tuesday night's StarKid concert performance at the Bottom Lounge on the Near West Side, not that it mattered to the screaming crowd. Based on StarKid's Internet popularity alone — the logical culmination of "Wicked" and "Glee," both of which helped relaunch a certain kind of musical theater back into the pop culture mainstream — the group is on a nationwide tour through November called "The SPACE (StarKid Precarious Auditory Concert Experience) Tour." The grandiosity of that title is tongue-in-cheek, but the high-energy, bigheartedness of the performances feels very earnest, indeed.
The StarKids moved en masse to Chicago after graduation. As a company, the members have produced just one show locally since coming to town (the sci-fi musical "Starship," a video of which was also posted online) but they have garnered the kind of exposure theater performers rarely experience. In less than three years, StarKid's online videos have been watched more than 100 million times.
Which leads us to the concert tour, a series of one-night stops. The StarKids self-produced an album last year, a best-of collection of songs from their shows, including the groove-inflected "Goin' Back to Hogwarts" and "Granger Danger" (a duet between "Potter" characters Ron Weasley and Draco Malfoy). The material is very standard-issue, Broadway-style stuff. Nothing wrong with that. Clearly. At one point the album beat out Lady Gaga and the "Glee" soundtrack on iTunes.
Confirming the StarKids' status as rocks stars for people who dig musical theater, the audience let out a frenzied shriek as the group took the stage. Of the seven performers featured — including a couple of requisite hunky guys for eye candy — Lauren Lopez is the one with the noticeable star quality, and she knows how to command a stage. Lopez could straight-up front a rock band, she has that much charisma.
"A friend of mine is applying to Michigan because of them," Caroline Ullman, 17, told me. A serious devotee of the StarKid output (she follows the group and some of the individual members on Twitter), Ullman accompanied me to Tuesday's show and made this observation afterward: "Personally, I prefer seeing the StarKids act and sing (in a play) as opposed to just singing. I think I would go to another concert of theirs again, because I love watching them perform anything. The kids have talent — I'd just rather see them go all out, acting in costume and makeup, than watch them in concert."
To my own nonfan-girl eye, I found there to be a homogeneous quality to the material as well as the stage personas. Things got a little corny at times. The concert setting probably isn't where StarKid shines the brightest. This much is clear: The StarKids' appeal isn't about musical or lyrical innovation, not really. The songs are solid, the approach parent-friendly. No serious boundary-pushing here. But what gets people excited is the idea that the StarKids didn't wait for someone in a position of authority to write material for them, or to offer them roles in a show. This is all self-created and self-generated. And if the StarKids can do it, the thinking goes, so can we. And that is a very alluring idea to anyone who dreams of standing onstage and belting out a great, big number someday themselves.
As a group, the members are indefatigable. The break between sets was little more than an excuse for them to perform as a separate band called Jim and the Povolos (whose songs were far more melodically interesting than the StarKid material). The women, who are pretty without being intimidating, went to great lengths to make sure everyone felt included and appreciated, waving at the crowd midsong. There is an unmistakable message in the songs. "Who cares about normal?" goes one lyric. For any kid who feels like an outsider, that's a powerful message.
"We're just so lucky to have each other," StarKid Meredith Stepien said at one point, referring to her fellow performers, "because we're weirdos. I was such a weirdo in high school. I had glasses and braces and a mustache, so it was really special to meet these weirdos in college. You'll find your weirdos one day," she said, looking meaningfully into the crowd. "You are cool."
Watching these young 20-somethings singing songs made famous through social media, I couldn't decide if I was looking at the start of something bigger — StarKid takes over the world! — or one of the last moments of innocence for the group, before various members are picked off by lucrative opportunities elsewhere, and one of the last times they will be together.
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