The cast in Friday’s opening night performance of Romance en Route, the 92nd Waa-Mu show directed by Johanna McKenzie Miller, played their hearts out to a loud crowd in Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St. The show is frothy and filled with strong singers and actors who commit to their roles, even if the plot’s credulity is stretched at times to the point of almost snapping. But what’s a good romantic comedy if every story line isn’t destined to have a happy ending?
“[At] its heart, Romance en Route, is a story about being brave,” Miller writes in the show’s QR code notes. She could also be referring to the creative process behind Waa-Mu. This completely original show takes a full year and nearly 150 undergraduate students to pull off, with a multitude of tasks both behind and in front of the curtain. The fact that Waa-Mu exists every single year is a feat in itself.
But falling in love, and working to stay in love, are acts of bravery, too. Much of Romance en Route is about being brave: sticking up for yourself, even if it means leaving someone you once loved or still love, or taking a chance on a new experience and going outside your comfort zone. There are many ways to be brave, as these six characters soon learn.
The play opens in a waiting area at Air France in the international terminal at Chicago O’Hare. Two twentysomethings – Eve (Anna Rosenthal, a terrific performer with a powerhouse voice) and Xander (Oliver Tam, so earnest) – board the same plane. Both are en route to meet up with significant others whom they haven’t seen for months. A handsome flight attendant, Tristan (Matheus Barbee, a dynamic performer), is intrusive and meddlesome in a cute, matchmaking sort of way.
In Paris, unbeknownst to Eve and Xander, their significant others – Lexi (Sophie Liu David, another terrific singer) and Jenna (Sami DeVries, a dynamo) – are colleagues and competitors in the midst of a stressful project that’s due in two days. They work in a creative field and kowtow to their boss, a pompous jerk played to perfection by Becker Spear. Jenna, Xander’s beau, accuses Lexi of deliberately trying to sabotage her chances for promotion by deleting her name from an important document, a charge Lexi denies.
Jenna’s character has a lot of rough edges, especially compared to Lexi’s polished persona. How these two people who can barely stomach each other are supposed to work closely together on this major project is the first of several plot points that seem awfully thin. DeVries was totally winsome as young Jane Goodall in Me… Jane at the Josephine Louise Theater last fall. She plays her part in this production to the hilt, so much so that she is almost unlikeable. (Thank goodness, her character comes around by the play’s end.)
Eventually, everyone converges at the Hôtel des Fleurs, whose concierge is the world-weary Matthieu (Anand Choudhary). He’s seen and heard everything, courtesy of his American guests. Some of his guests are positively uncouth, but what can he do? It’s post-COVID, and business is business.
The ensuing drama takes place either in the lobby of Hôtel des Fleurs or along one of the many bridges sprinkled throughout Paris. The sets (Nicholas Giap Lam) are clever and efficient. Chandeliers drop in or rise up, tables and chairs roll in and out and the hotel desk transforms into a stall for flowers.
The show is packed with 19 original musical numbers under the direction of musical supervisor Ryan T. Nelson and guidance of musical directors Wes D’Alelio and Oliver Paddock. Take Flight (music by Sadie Fridley, Emerson Steady, lyrics by Lena Moore) at the top half of the opening act is charming. And I’m Glad That It Was You (music by Eric Powers, lyrics by Eric Powers, Kailey Morand, Julia Yanosik and Maggie Munday Odam) is the kindest breakup song ever, making some of the inevitable heartache a bit easier to take. The orchestra is terrific.
By the climax, the machinations between the main characters have worked themselves out. There have been breakups, couplings, promotions and more travel planned. Even the boss played by Spear seems slightly more palatable. Go. Enjoy yourselves. It will make you want to go to Paris.
Tickets are available here. The show continues Friday through Sunday, May 5-7, at Cahn Auditorium at 600 Emerson St. Elevator building; masks are required.
NOTE: The trend now is to ditch printed programs and just offer a QR code, which requires a smartphone. Yes, this is ecologically more responsible, but how is Grandma supposed to read this? It is neither easy to do nor convenient.