Chicago residents familiar with the hipster/Wrigleyville divide that fuels a type of low-level social antagonism amongst the 20- and 30-something crowds may find serious amusement in Byron Hatfield’s and Jeff Strickland’s new musical “A West (and North) Side Story.”
“Chicago is such a city of neighborhoods, and each has such a discernable feeling,” said Hatfield, 36. “I was foreign to the idea of the tragically hip until years ago I went to Gorilla Tango in Wicker Park. Then I thought there was just a lot of material here.”
The musical takes the basic premise of the classic Broadway show and gives it a Chicago spin with overeager Cubs fans and hipsters substituting for the Jets and the Sharks. Rather than parodies of that musical’s well-worn songs, it includes original musical numbers written by Strickland, 33.
“I never intended for it to play off of ‘West Side Story’ directly, and it’s just so fun to tell a story with musical numbers,” he said. “It had been a germ for several years, but pitting those two groups against each other was just too fun. A lot of material to parody.”
“Making the antagonist a huge hipster douchebag saying ridiculous stuff was just too irresistible,” he admitted.
Nate Baumgart, 28, and Jaclyn Juliet, 25, play the Tony and Maria roles, with Baumgart representing the preppie North Sider and Juliet the hipster chick who crosses invisible borders to be with him.
“I’ve only been in the city two and a half years, but I kind of knew the stereotypes pretty quickly,” Juliet said. “I’m more of a yippie, so I don’t know who I identify with. I enjoy intramural sports but I’ll spend a Friday night home alone listening to music. Isn’t that what hipsters do? I don’t know.”
Baumgart points out that part of the fun is pointing out how silly the very definitions are.
“The common feature of these two groups is that they are young people taking themselves too seriously,” he said. “No one is that one-dimensional, so you take this abstract concept and push a certain variable all the way to one end.”
Hatfield, who owns the Pub Theater and produces shows for a living, wrote the highly successful Chicago-based show “Bye-Bye Liver,” which has sold out shows across the Midwest. Though “A West (and North) Side Story” plays on Thursdays, he claims it is as tight, funny and well-executed as any show that would run on a Friday or Saturday night.
“People get into it,” he said. “They’ll come dressed in Cubs gear or looking extra hipster-ish. And that’s what makes the show fun—it’s not malicious, everyone can laugh at themselves. The caricatures are honest and identifiable, but not in a jerky way.”
The cast comes from a variety of backgrounds including improv, sketch and musical theater. Baumgart and Juliet both attest that this gives the show a dynamism and has made it one of their favorite working experiences.
“I really enjoy ensemble work, and I don’t think I’ve worked with as efficient and talented a cast as this one,” Juliet said.
“A West (and North) Side Story”
Chemically Imbalanced Theater
1420 W. Irving Park Road
8 p.m. Thursdays through April 14.