Chicago, IL —
While the Illinois Senate passed a measure to legalize same-sex marriage on Valentine's Day, Chicago comedy theatre pH Productions prepared for the opening of their newest show, an original LGBT-themed musical sketch comedy called "Same Sex, Different Gays." The show features a cast of six, two women and four men, who explore "the ins, outs, tops and bottoms" of same-sex relationships -- depicting everything from hook-ups to marriages to fags and their hags -- painting a portrait of LGBT life.
"I think it's a really good view of the reality of being gay and what the relationships you have in your community and in your family are," Bev Bailey, the show's director and a repertory member of pH told ChicagoPride.com. "We didn't come out with a show saying ‘hi, we're pH, we're gonna show you a show about gay schtick' -- we're showing something that's actually real."
Seeing many gay plays as relying on overplayed and dated jokes, Bailey, who is a straight woman, wanted to create a portrayal of love, life and relationships where gay was the given and not the punchline. Her idea was met with enthusiasm and pH assembled a team of writers spanning the spectrum of sexuality. Three gay men, one lesbian and two straight allies collaborated to write the music and lyrics for 22 original songs, 18 of which are included in the final cut of the show. The resulting hour-long musical comedy is a high-energy treat that gives the audience an honest, satirical, at times touchingly intimate, and laugh-out-loud funny look at life and love in the LGBT community.
"We don't have sort of a creative overlord like many of the other theatres do," said Brett Mannes, Executive Director of pH Productions and one of the actors in the new show. "We are all creators -- we are all in this together, creating something out of nothing, whether it be in a show, on the stage, or behind the scenes developing new ideas for shows and new concepts for comedy."
Self-described as "the people's comedy theatre," pH has been performing original comedic work since 2002, when its founding members broke off from the late-night, experimental comedy group Low Sodium Entertainment. The focus started on late-night shows in Wrigleyville, pulling drunk people off the street to see improv comedy at 11 o'clock and 12:30. It wasn't until the group moved to Studio B, a comedy theatre just south of Belmont on Sheffield, that they began to take the idea of opening their own place seriously.
Studio B served as a sort of stepping stone for three years while pH saved up the money for their new home, finally leaving the Lakeview theatre in June of 2012 and opening their new pH Comedy Theatre, located at 1515 W Berwyn in the heart of Andersonville, that October.
Setting up in Andersonville, the indie-leaning far north neighborhood often referred to as Chicago's second gay enclave after Boystown, has long been a goal of members at pH. For the past four years, pH has made Andersonville the home of their main fundraiser, the Chicago Zombie Bar Crawl (the five year anniversary of which is this year on April 20), in an effort to establish some roots and develop relationships with the nearby business owners that are now their neighbors. Andersonville's draw stemmed partly from a lack of after-dinner entertainment options (excluding bars and the nearby Neo-Futurarium) and partly from the neighborhood's overall vibe.
"We thought Andersonville was an audience that would really get us and we thought it was a neighborhood that would welcome us because they could hopefully use something like this to add value to Andersonville as a destination," Mannes said. "We thought we would be a good fit: culturally, intellectually and demographically."
Traditionally, Mannes explained to ChicagoPride.com, there are two types of improvisational theatre, or improv. Longform, or scenic, improv revolves around creating something like a scene from a play on the fly, while short form improv is game-based -- think "Whose Line Is It Anyway?". pH performances focus more on the scenic side, but attack those scenes with the same energy and approach you would find in the short form, game-based side: diving right in, getting to the comedic meat of the scene quick and getting out so someone else can dive right in. The name pH derives from the group's chemistry on stage.
"Our strength comes from the relationships we have with one another -- we're all very good friends, dare I say a family, and so there's a lot of harmony and balance," Mannes told ChicagoPride.com. "On the other side of the chemistry analogy, we've got diversity, which is a huge strength of ours. We have so many different types of players that it's kind of like any chemical reaction is possible -- like a baking soda and vinegar type reaction... something that's a little more crazy and cacophonous."
pH Productions consists of about 40 creative people with different strengths, different backgrounds and different styles. When pH opened their Comedy Theatre last October, they went from two slots a piece on Fridays and Saturdays to performing, at the present moment, 10 shows, four days a week. All members of their ensemble are encouraged not only do improv shows, but to create, write, act in, and direct sketch and improv shows, write musicals and do stand-up sets. Everyone is engaged and empowered to do whatever they want and take risks creatively and have that supported by, as Mannes and Bailey put it, "their best friends in the world."
The group has very different processes for creating material for their shows. They range from a very traditional Second City-type approach of improvising and improvising to create scenes and sketches, to gathering in someone's living room, doing a few shots and putting pen to paper to start writing songs, which was occasionally the case for "Same Sex, Different Gays."
"Improv is at the core of what we do and so we're all trained in getting on that stage, having nothing to work with except each other and our individual points of view and our strengths and our backgrounds, and building on all of those as a team to create a show," Mannes explained. "So either we're doing that in the moment in an improv show or we're doing it Saturdays and Mondays when we meet for rehearsals as a writing team. It's basically all about relying on each other and supporting each other to create something out of nothing."
This is not the group's first foray into musical comedy. pH productions has performed musical versions of "The Room" and John Hughes' 80s teen classic "The Breakfast Club." They also have a weekly show called "pHamily the musical," where the audience suggests ideas for melodies, song titles and plot twists that the actors improvise into a one-of-a-kind musical experience. When the Chicago Improv Festival utilizes different theatres to host specific styles of improv this April, the pH Comedy Club will be home to all of the festival's musical improv.
"Same Sex, Different Gays" was a more collaborative and eclectic writing effort than any of their past musical endeavors. They wrote songs both individually and together as a team, hoping to put together a show that expressed diverse points of view and really spoke to the audience honestly about relationships in the gay world.
"Relatability is the name of the game," Mannes said. "We really want people to see themselves on stage, and have that heightened for comedy, but deliver a real message of truth of just getting to the heart of nuances and aspects of being LGBT that you typically don't see in movies or TV."
The show opens with a full-cast number explaining the spectrum of identities represented by LGBT, a fun and somewhat brash song that sets an appropriate tone for the rest of the show. The 17 remaining songs are an array of observations and perspectives on, and examples of, relationships within the gay community, punctuated by short comedic scenes.
Numbers range from a duet between the least and most attractive guys at an orgy that sounds like a tribute to "Cabaret" balad "Maybe This Time," to an exchange between a lesbian and her doctor about her "technical" virginity despite a very active sex life with her girlfriend. It features various music styles (all music was written by pH music guru Brand Kemp), including nods to broadway and jazz, a rap number and a quartet of singers who break out into dance for song clips of "Gimme More," "Can't Get You Outta My Head" and "Closing Time" while they reminisce on their one night stands to acoustic guitar.
The songs' lyrics are frank, honest and funny, with occasional graphic sexual descriptions and casual reference to sex, drugs and partying; but they're also surprisingly touching and sometimes sad, as in a duet between two moms about how the feeling you get "at first" fades after years together or the ballad of a man finding a new role in life as a stay at home dad. The audience favorite was a recurring appearance of four men called the "Gay Men's Choir," who harmonized gayisms like "bitch, please," "no you didn't," "are you for real?," and "girl."
"Same Sex, Different Gays: Musical Tales of Relationships" runs every Saturday at 9:30 PM through March 30 at the ph Comedy Theatre, 1515 W Berwyn, around the corner from Berwyn and Clark ,in Andersonville. Tickets are $15, $10 for students and can be purchase in advanced online or at box office. The pH Comedy Theatre is BYOB and audience members who mention pH across the street at Ranalli's of Andersonville receive a discount on beer and other beverages. For more information about pH, this year's Zombie Pub Crawl or or to buy tickets for "Same Sex, Different Gays," please visit www.whatisph.com.