Don’t be fooled by the first half hour or so of “Oh, the Places You’ll Glow,” the new show at Second City’s e.t.c. Theater.
One after another, the cast rolls out scenes that are amusing but fairly routine fare for the Old Town satirical stalwart. A man reconsiders a one-night stand as he learns his date’s toxic politics. A newly deceased soul finds Mrs. Satan runs Hell, while batting away her pesky husband’s entreaties for attention. A bit of trivia from the audience is cycled through today’s media landscape, handled with fear and alarm by Fox News, MSNBC and TikTok.
But just as the crowd is lulled into expecting pleasant, chuckle-worthy antics, something turns. The crew at a Jewel about to close goes full-on dance party, with bubbles, beats and baggers in banana and pizza costumes sashaying the ballroom runway. They give carte blanche to a customer who wanders in (Tim Metzler, miming smartly), lest he expose their pageant of grocery drag.
When: Open run
Where: Second City e.t.c., 230 W. North Ave.
Tickets: $39 – $74
Easing us into intermission is a notice that psychedelic mushroom vapor has been pumped into the theater, and we’re all now tripping. The room goes dark, illuminated only by glowing swords, stringy fiberoptics and the bulbs woven into Claudia Martinez’s fake fur. She’s our guide, instructing us in a chipper Bjork voice when to lift our phone lights in a colorful, consciousness-expanding exercise in mass hallucination.
We return from our bathroom visits to Martinez again, now tap-dancing as a Shirley Temple-esque moppet. She’s on a movie set, and between scenes she rages at her dad (Metzler), who doesn’t dare upset his little meal ticket. The child star as backstage bully is old hat, but these two sell it with sheer force — Martinez shifting sharply from sweetness to fury and back again, and Metzler all high-strung jitters.
After a grounded but still fierce scene of a mom (Meghan Babbe) and teen daughter (Leila Gorstein) tackling body image in a TJ Maxx changing room, the show starts a tumble into lunacy that never stops.
There’s an explanation of the Bears’ woes: One player (Babbe) — drafted involuntarily and forced to serve, military style — is a theater major who knows nothing about football. A dulcet fairy (Brittani Yawn) abruptly spits her grievances, gangsta style. To educate the audience tourists, Martinez and Babbe shoot down Chicago’s national reputation for violence by playing gangster tour guides in pinstripes and ghastly Italian accents, roaming the crowd and aggressively roasting people’s hometowns, as the old-country ditty in the background hilariously cuts in and out.
And the merry-go-round keeps breaking down as we pratfall though a scientist’s brawl with her poor-quality clones (music director John Love having a ball with the slapstick special effects), the aftermath of a bloody penguin mutiny at Lincoln Park Zoo and an office boss (Jordan Savusa) badly misinterpreting a gift from his underlings. It all culminates at Ford’s Theater, where a goof on Lincoln’s assassination escalates into an “Oh, the Places You’ll Glow!” recap that barely makes sense but deftly wraps up the show’s embrace of the ludicrous.
Yes, there’s a lot of nonsense here, but it’s well-thought-out nonsense. Under director Jeff Griggs, a Chicago improv fixture of long standing, the actor-writers have put together a bombardment of creative ideas carefully structured to seem out of control. The result is often exhilarating.
Another way this show works is as a showcase for the highly expressive Martinez, who made a strong first impression in last year’s “Great Altercations” (later relaunched as “Eat, Pray, Bigfoot in Love”) and here commands our attention as the psychedelic spirit guide, the bratty child star and an anxious teen fantasizing about her nun teacher (Babbe, a strong foil).
Savusa, a veteran of four (!) previous Second City revues, has settled in as a strong ensemble player. He puts his likability to use with a cheery solo song about a threat that scares every audience member, or should. But he goes effectively big when needed. He and newcomer Gorstein (familiar to viewers of Me TV’s “Toon In With Me”) tap into endless reserves of manic energy as children’s entertainers arguing mid-song about what their hookup meant.
This is a fast-moving show, with a wildly talented cast that knows how to pack a lot of meaning into two seconds of extended hands or sidelong glances. It’s destined to generate a lot of giddy laughs in the months to come. Or maybe that’s the mushroom vapor talking.