Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association, photo by Michael Courier.
Full disclosure: I’m a total sucker for karaoke. I used to take my children to karaoke clubs all the time when they were younger, and we still sing together using my home machine and my ridiculously extensive collection of song discs. So when I saw the title of Last Night in Karaoke Town, I knew immediately that I had to see it. What I was hoping for was a sense of the fun and silliness of real karaoke along with characters representing some of the specific types of singers I’d seen over the years. I’m happy to say that I got all of that and more.
Co-written by Mike Beyer and Kirk Pynchon, Last Night in Karaoke Town takes place in a Cleveland bar (designed by Manuel Ortiz) that has featured karaoke since 1989. (The press release says that, as far as the theater is aware, this is the first play ever written honoring Cleveland.) The club is struggling; though it has a small but very dedicated group of regulars, it doesn’t turn much of a profit. And with the neighborhood gentrifying all around it, the notion of someone buying the building and displacing them doesn’t really come as a shock to longtime owner Diana (Wendy Hayne), though it hurts. What does surprise it the fact that the new owner, Ethan (Tommy Bullington, chewing up all sorts of scenery with his hilariously effete characterization), intends to open a cider bar in the space, as well as the fact that she would have to close the bar tonight. In a last-ditch effort to change Ethan’s mind, Diana and her patrons decide to thrown a huge final bash and hope the the new owner might see how great karaoke actually is.
One great thing about karaoke bars is that the regulars all get to know each other. Some might become friends; others are singing buddies. They know each other’s favorite songs, join together for duets, and enthusiastically applaud each other’s performances—even the ones that are not exactly on key—especially if the singer has a big personality. The biggest personality in this club clearly belongs to Miles (Philip Zimmermann), who absolutely takes over the place when he starts to sing…and sometimes even when he is just conversing at his table with Ted (Michael Jones), who has recently become an over the top feminist and constantly blames problems on the patriarchy.
The most significant club rivalry belongs to Audrey (Glenna Ellis) and Lily (Samantha Porter), former besties who are each here tonight with new friends (Sal Gardo and Abbie Warhus) because Audrey recently had the audacity to sing Lily’s signature song (Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn”). The other newcomer in the club tonight is Brad (Conor Clark), who has just moved from San Diego to be with his fiancée Evelyn (Kirby Gibson). In a nice reversal of the ubiquitous Cleveland jokes you might hear in other cities, Clevelanders apparently believe San Diego to be a terrible place to live and are constantly telling Brad how sorry they feel for him. There are also plenty of Lebron James references because, well, Cleveland.
Presiding over all of these wannabe singers is caustic bartender Shannon (Ashley Yates) and karaoke jock Kenny (Chase Wheaton-Werle). Shannon’s dour demeanor and businesslike attitude contrast in the best way with Kenny’s desperate, sycophantic desire to be liked. But there is one thing that all of these denizens of the “finest karaoke bar in Cleveland” have in common: a deep affection for the music. They may not all agree about what’s good, but they know what they like. (One thing Shannon doesn’t like is “Don’t Stop Believing”; she has hung a sign forbidding it to be played.) Whether or not they sing these songs well, they derive great pleasure from the experience.
Under Kim Boler’s solid direction, the regulars embody many different karaoke types. There is the good singer who imagines herself a superstar when she gets behind the microphone and takes it all very, very seriously. There are the big, bold types who (like Miles) make their every turn at the mic a memorable occasion. There are quieter types who are not at all comfortable singing in public. And there is Diana, who has not actually sung at the club for years even though she once dreamed of going to Chicago and trying her luck as a singer. Despite the large number of characters vying for attention here, Boler makes sure that each of them has the opportunity to develop clear and individual traits that define them. And no one is more blatantly individual than Bullington’s Ethan, who doesn’t fit in at all in this low-key neighborhood bar with his affected pronunciation, his exaggeratedly effeminate hand motions, his intense love for cider, and his dislike of music of all kinds. (Well, he does acknowledge that he will play Enya in his new bar because, he says, Enya is not really music.)
Last Night in Karaoke Town is not a profound play, nor is it full of unexpected twists. In general, the characters reach the end of the evening exactly as you’d expect them to despite occasional meltdowns along the way. But it isn’t supposed to be profound or surprising; it’s a celebration of friendship and comaraderie based on mutual interests and a recognition that change is inevitable. And with its fun characters and all of those songs—even the ones that are simply bad are lots of fun—it feels a lot like a party even though it is also a goodbye. (And it closes with the perfect final tune.) This play won’t change your life, but it will entertain you, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need.
Last Night in Karaoke Town is now playing at Factory Theater, 1623 W. Howard St, Chicago, IL, until Mar 28. The show runs approximately 90 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.