‘An Artist and The Ember’ has a warm glow

Maddie Sachs and Zach Tabor in ‘An Artist and the Ember’ (Photos by Nick Murhling)
Maddie Sachs and Zach Tabor in ‘An Artist and the Ember’ (Photos by Nick Murhling)

In “An Artist and The Ember,” long suffering musical composer Eve (Maddie Sachs) struggles to create songs and a libretto for a musical she is writing based on a premise provided by her collaborators Sam (Taylor Snooks ) and Daniel (Quinn Rattan).

At the same time, she is constantly tormented and cajoled by her alter ego and fiery inner passion personified in the character, Ember (Zach Tabor).

The device of the character, Ember, is the genius of this play. Who among us has not been (at least from time-to-time) bedeviled by our inner voice? Ember has a Faustian quality though he makes no promises. It is a more cerebral or modern psychological spin on an old theme.

In this production, expertly directed by Emily Kipp, Tabor’s imposing frame juxtaposed against the more diminutive Sachs adds a dramatic visual element to Eve’s oppressive self-doubt and insecurity.

Though this play is in its nascent stages it is clear that Evan Cullinan who is responsible for the book, music and lyrics, knows how to write music and also did a credible job of managing the story-line.

Maddie Sachs, Taylor Snooks and Quinn Rattan in "An Artist and the Ember
Maddie Sachs, Taylor Snooks and Quinn Rattan in “An Artist and the Ember

The music is sophisticated and complex which is both its strength and its weakness. It is clear that Tabor who clearly has the vocal “chops,” struggled at times, as did the rest of the cast. Kudos however to the ensemble member who sang the “Siren” song.

Sachs portrayal of Eve was believable and well-acted. Virtually onstage every minute for nearly two hours it is physically and vocally demanding. I could not help thinking that you would need someone like Bernadette Peters or Kristin Chenoweth to have the strength and stamina to pull this off.

In regard to the book it seems Cullinan was straddling two horses. The interjection of Eve’s search for love was an awkward diversion. The references to Tinder and the swipe-left swipe-right number was fun but maybe should be saved for another story.

However I did welcome the placid nature of Shay (Kelsey Skomer) and loved the “Just Breathe” number which is pivotal in providing much needed contrast.

Cody Dericks did a nice job as Eve’s friend, Martin, and the character, like Shay, has a calming effect on Eve but he would benefit from some moment of his own. The part is too large and too small.

All of the secondary characters are too compartmentalized and fragmented and might benefit from some opportunity to come together and interact.

The production is full of a lot of good stuff but as it stands it is a tad too long and could use a 15 minute trim, especially if it is going to be offered without an intermission.

The last number was good but overall the payoff is tepid and something of a cop-out.

DETAILS: “An Artist and an Ember” produced by Underscore Theatre Company, can be seen Feb. 19 and Feb . 22, 2019 as part of The Chicago Musical Theatre Festival at The Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway, Chicago. Running time: 2 hours with no intermission. For tickets and more information visit Chicago Musical Theatre Festival.

Reno Lovison

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