Playwright: Dave Malloy ( book, music & lyrics )
At: Black Button Eyes Productions, Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-327-5252 and Stage773.com; $30. Runs through: Aug. 17
The Music Man at Goodman Theatre is an excellent production of a traditional feel-good musical comedy with bright tunes and a clear story, if that's your taste. However, if you'd rather see the most singular, unique and brilliantly-performed musical in Chicago, you should head pronto to Ghost Quartet. This mash up of gothic horror, fairy tales and fantasy is an intimate masterwork by U.S. musical polymath David Molloy ( born 1976 ).
This nearly through scored 90 minute piece rejects linear narrative, choosing instead to interweave characters and fantasies from sources as varied as Poe, the Arabian Nights and the Brothers Grimm. There are 18 characters played by four actors, and locales from 14th century Persia to modern New York, but don't worry if you fail to recognize them. Most of them aren't really there as far as I could determine, but that's OK.
Molloy dubbed this 2014 work a song cycle rather than a story show, and staging it wasn't intended. It was a musical gift for several friends who were the original performers. With neither a published score nor orchestrations for Ghost Quartet, director Ed Rutherford ( Black Button Eyes artistic chief ) and bloody brilliant musical director, Nick Sula, worked from the composer's lead sheets, and what a fabulous job they've done!
Ghost Quartet has 23 songs drawing on a dozen musical styles: jazz ( shout out to Thelonious Monk ), bluegrass ( and its Scots-Irish roots ), klezmer, Semitic minor key chant and lots of close harmony and acapella. The four performers accompany themselves on keyboards, acoustic guitar, accordion, trumpet, ukulele, drums and autoharp among other instruments, some played for only a few measures in one song. The two women do the vocal heavy lifting while the two men carry the instrumentals, but all four share both tasks with consummate artistry.
The endearing, versatile and greatly talented players are T. J. Anderson ( baritone, keyboards ), Alex Ellsworth ( baritone, cello ), Rachel Guth ( mezzo, autoharp ) and Amanda Raquel Martinez ( alto, accordion ); each individually a treat and collectively remarkable. Still, you'll be awed by Ellsworth and his brilliant ability to use his cello as multiple instruments by bowing, plucking, striking the strings or playing the bloody thing sideways like a guitar!
It's such a pleasure to see four such gifted young performers that the stories they tell almost don't matter. Still, there's a ghost story, a subway murder, a variant on Poe's Fall of the House of Usher, a wild bear with a honeypot and a whiskey tribute. They intertwine and interconnect but never come straight, which t'aint no matter this time around.
As if Ghost Quartet were a concept album, each song/scene is announced by a side and track number. The animated projections by G. "Max" Maxin IV are witty and charmingly whimsical. Ghost Quartet deserves an extended run.