"Yo Joe! A Real American Hip-Hop Musical" ***
Packed with enough jingoism that it practically fertilized everything it touched with stars and bars, the '80s animated series "GI Joe: A Real American Hero" was not my cartoon of choice as a kid. But I was still bowled over by this parody.
The first 10 minutes are not promising. Too awkward, too stilted. It's an uneven cast, there's barely enough room on stage to accommodate a ninja sword fight later on (I would advise not sitting in the front row), and the clumsy scene changes in director David Flora's production need to be simplified, no question.
And yet there is something about creator Jay Gish's show for Red Star Studio that roped me in, but good. Gish has a real sense of farce and has written a plot that actually makes sense (a rarity in the world of spoofs): The Joes hunt down voodoo doll action figures of themselves that have been manufactured by the enemy. If it weren't so meta, I'd swear it was a plot ripped from the actual cartoon, but just enough details have been changed to avoid letters from copyright lawyers.
Despite a score that is hit and miss, the songs that do work make a big impact, including the battle rap "You're Overrated," with its indelibly funky backing track, and the hokey party-time finale "Half the Battle."
A few key performances seal the deal. Tamara Todres makes the most of her zany dominatrix who speaks in an unidentifiable foreign accent, and I liked the jangly bravado of C.J. Tuor's master of disguise. Bob Pantalone's hilariously petulant evildoer is unexpected fun because Pantalone understands what makes these crime-lord archetypes so ridiculous. The MVP is Caleb George as Flinch, a Mr. America-type in his camo, black beret and two-day stubble. It's a performance worthy of a Jim Abrahams project, somewhere in the territory of "Hot Shots!" and "Naked Gun." The guy is a straight-faced clown, in the best sense of the word.
Through Oct. 15 at Chemically Imbalanced Comedy, 1422 W. Irving Park Road; tickets are $15 at 800-838-3006 or brownpapertickets.com
"The City That Drinks" *1/2
Ostensibly, Sean Benjamin and Steve Mosqueda, the guys who launched their Drinking & Writing performance series in 2002, have created a new show that examines the history of Chicago as it evolved through the twin pleasures that give the group its name: the drinking, and the writing.
If only. At best, "The City That Drinks" works as a barely written, seriously muddled performance art game show, except the production feels far too uncertain and slapped together to be much fun. The actual board game is confusing and doesn't serve any apparent purpose. There's also a conspicuous lack of the meaningful insight that has defined Drinking & Writing endeavors in the past. These guys know better. They know how to put on a show — even if the show is more "couple guys talking wittily between sips of beer" than an actual show-show, which is their wont — but they've been caught flat-footed this time, and no amount of Royko/Terkel/Algren name-dropping can help them out of this one.
Through Oct. 15 at the Drinking & Writing Theater at Haymarket Pub & Brewery, 737 W. Randolph St.; tickets are $15 at brownpapertickets.com