There’s a moment early in Midwestern Gothic on when Stina, a teenager prancing around in her mother’s old yellow one piece, implores her stepfather, Red – wearing a trucker hat and drinking a beer from the six-pack he’s carrying around – to take pictures of her that they can send off to the Sears catalogue. Ten minutes into the show, Midwestern Gothic is stacking up Midwestern stereotypes so quickly that it seems they must be building to something subversive and interesting. By the time the musical ends after another 90 minutes worth of denim, Jesus, and odes to a pick-up truck, you will find that they were not.
To be fair, when you have 100 minutes to deliver a musical horror comedy, there’s not a lot of time for depth or nuance. You’ve got Sweeny Todd and Little Shop of Horrors to live up to, after all. But for a show that wants to be considered “brave’ and “daring,” Midwestern Gothic is awfully predictable, and the writing is a little bit lazy.
The show centers on Stina (Morgan Keene), a teenager who is assuaging her flyover country boredom by trying to seduce her stepfather (Timothy J. Alex); manipulate Anderson, her only friend; and keep herself busy doing god knows what in an abandoned house nearby. Her mother Deb essentially lives at the bar she runs 100 miles away, and it will come as no surprise that Deb and Red’s marriage isn’t a happy one.
The chaos sown by Stina propels the story, and the show does get darker as well as more bizarre in its second half. You can’t conflate bizarre with complex though, and neither the book nor the music offer enough grounding or context to connect the audience to the characters’ motivations to anything but the most obvious of actions. By the time Stina is singing to and about flowers or pleading for religious redemption, audiences will be more confused than moved. Having fallen too quickly and completely into easy stereotypes, Midwestern Gothic can’t quite grasp the credibility it needs to be a multi-dimensional story.
Thought the story is lacking, the talented cast does what they can, and they’re unquestionably strong vocalists, and a couple of the supporting players help to infuse their characters with unrealized potential. Sam Ludwig as Anderson makes you think there might have been something more interesting than infatuation to his foolish devotion to Stina. And a barfly named LuAnn, played by Rachel Zampelli might be the show’s most intriguing character despite the fact that she’s only on screen for a couple of scenes.
The second half of this relatively short show more quickly than the first, as Stina goes increasingly off the rails and both the cast and the fog machine go all in on the absurdity. But the in the end, Midwestern Gothic over promises and under-delivers. As one of the show’s stereotypical Midwestern characters might say, the musical is all sizzle and no steak.