Long before streaming services, YouTube, and "American Idol" were valid ways to launch a music career, musicians were discovered by cassette tape demos or poorly paid gigs in smoke-filled clubs. "The Undeniable Sound of Right Now," which closes Blackfriars Theatre's 2018-19 season, tells the story of one such (fictional) club in Chicago.
The year is 1992, and Hank's is known throughout the Windy City -- and the nation -- for hosting bands like Nirvana and The Clash before they were household names. The venue's founder and owner Hank (Matt Ames) has lived above his club for 25 years and raised his 21-year-old daughter, Lena (Kate Armstrong), with his ex-wife Bette (Mary Mendez Rizzo). In the wake of techno music's rising popularity and a wave of young DJs playing warehouse shows all over the city, Hank's has simply become a place of nostalgia, and with a rent increase from second-generation landlord Joey (Dave Andreatta), the struggling club needs a new strategy. (Followers of New York City's CBGB, the haven for punk music in the 1980s, will find some alignment in the storyline.)
Penned by playwright and screenwriter Laura Eason ("Sex with Strangers," "House of Cards"), a Chicago-area native, "The Undeniable Sound of Right Now" captures the bittersweet act of passing the baton and a moving father-daughter relationship. Alexa Scott-Flaherty, who last directed the all-female 'Twelfth Night" at Blackfriars during the 2017-18 season, guides a cast of six, with assistant direction from Jill Rittinger.
As soon as audience members enter the theater, they are transported to a club circa-1980s -- complete with wood paneling, baskets of stale pretzels, and ash trays filled with cigarette butts (a throwback to pre-indoor smoking laws). Scenic designer Roger Budnik has constructed a full working bar opposite a stage with instruments and mics, fully outfitted for a live performance. Before finding their seats in the BFT auditorium, patrons can order a beer (featuring Rohrbach Brewing Company) or glass of wine from guest bartenders and hear a short set from a local band.
The intimate cast radiates immediate chemistry with one another. There are many deep dynamics at play throughout the script, from ex-lovers and infatuation to unrequited love and familial bonds. As Hank, Ames portrays a grizzly club owner with a tough exterior and a caring heart. Ames's ability to translate the character's myriad emotional makeup anchors the show throughout, giving his fellow cast members plenty to work with. As a daughter trying to find her identity, Armstrong is a worthy counterpart to Ames. Her energy is infectious, and she exudes a confidence necessary to the role. The most touching moments in the show come from moments between Ames and Armstrong, who poignantly portray the complex relationship between a father and daughter during the late teenage and young adult years.
As Hank's ex-wife Bette, Rizzo is sass and saccharine; as Hank's self-deprecating employee Toby who's hopelessly in love with Lena, Andy Head elicits many of the laughs during the production. As DJ Nash, Laron Dewberry is charming and forthright, and his initial tête-à-tête with Armstrong is a sweet scene. Andreatta rounds out the cast as conniving, ambitious Joey, a young developer with his own interests in mind.
The technical team at Blackfriars does an admirable job of bringing the 90s to life onstage, from costumes by Erika Gordon to rock 'n' roll props by John Engel. The two-and-a-half hour show runs with one 15-minute intermission, which gives audience members time to visit the onstage bar again. Overall, "The Undeniable Sound of Right Now" is a fun night out -- melding a night at a dive bar, music gig, and theater -- and a fitting ending to a strong 2018-19 season at BFT.