Given her severe demeanor, austere personality and penchant for experimenting with form, Gertrude Stein doesn’t exactly leap to the top of the pile of possibilities for a biographical tuner; Frankie Valli she ain’t. But she is an original, and Chi’s Frank Galati, who has long nurtured an interest in the expat 20th-century literary icon, has created an idiosyncratic but weirdly compelling little musical out of an agglomeration of Stein bio nuggets and re-creations of her wacky creative works.
It’s hard to imagine a commercial future for this oddball project — but, then again, Chicago’s savvy, gay-oriented About Face Theater helped nurture “I Am My Own Wife,” which didn’t exactly scream Broadway, either.
“Loving Repeating” certainly needs work. At present, the piece is too short, too sketchy, too light on the biography and too heavy on the Stein-Within-a-Stein creative matter (too many re-creations of her fake operas, that sort of thing). As a result, the show spends too much time in the world of pastiche when any show about Stein also needs to do some contemplating of her place in the world, then and now.
The show is based around a provocative and rather political lecture Stein gave at the U. of Chicago in 1934, but Galati never fully theatricalizes this material. It all gets stuck at the podium.
Some steps in that regard surely would help the piece. Frequent Galati collaborator Stephen Flaherty is a romantic composer whose ditties always fit better with stirring lyrical themes than with silliness. Some of the musical motifs here are quite lovely, if not yet fully formed. But Flaherty needs to find those themes of longing in Stein’s work and musicalize them, along with all the clever Stein phraseology that already permeates the show.
If this pair could generate some major numbers out of Stein’s thoughts on the nature of life and death, there’d be something for auds to grab here. Poetry and formative experimentation is fine, but deeper issues still must be in play. It’s hard to see this show thriving entirely as an homage to Stein. Rather, it needs to be about her. Only then will it snag the necessary narrative arc and underlying tension.
There’s also the matter of Stein’s famous relationship with Alice B. Toklas, which could get a lot more play; Toklas remains too shadowy a presence here. This pair of women were, of course, out, public and complicated. Here, it’s all too nuanced.
All that said, there’s already a killer performance from Cindy Gold as the older Stein. The vet Chi thesp brings the tremendous driving energy and sense of irony that one wishes the whole show could muster. As Stein’s younger self, newcomer Christine Mild is guileless but pleasingly driven and tuneful. And the ensemble perfs are strong, where the material and lack of definition allows.
Stein fans doubtless will find the show smart, authentic and in love with its subject in all its complex glory. Too much so, perhaps.