Team StarKid’s ‘Firebringer’ review: Light that flame

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8:30 pm EDT, July 13, 2016

Team StarKid’s latest production, Firebringer, incorporates themes of feminism and politics while still being as fun, goofy, and creative as ever.

The stone-age musical serves as the headlining show of the 2016 StarKid Summer Season, running in Chicago, Illinois from July 6 through August 7, 2016. It’s the company’s 10th full-length musical and was funded on Kickstarter back in the spring. But perhaps the most notable aspect of the production is that it’s the first StarKid show to have women in writing, directing, and music compostition roles, as well as the first to have a female protagonist…or two!

That’s right! Firebringer takes place in the stone-age, and focuses on a tribe of early humans who strive to learn more about the world while also trying to survive in it, and they all have different ideas of how to accomplish things. Tribe leader Jemilla (played by Meredith Stepien) is beloved by her people and manages to keep things relatively peaceful amongst her followers. But her whole world is turned upside down when she is informed that practically everything she thought she knew about the world was nothing but a lie, and rebel Zazzilil (Lauren Lopez) begins questioning her authority. All of this leads to a major discovery that results in a shift in the tribe’s power dynamics — and has potentially dangerous consequences.

Like previous Team StarKid musicals, Firebringer has its share of adult language and potty humor (much of which felt a little tiresome after awhile), but many of its jokes stem from real-life social issues such as religion and politics, and much like modern-day humans, the prehistoric characters are constantly trying to discover new ways to make life easier and more enjoyable. The two lead characters often butt heads in this regard, but the writers never set it up as a hero vs. villain conflict; both are painted sympathetically, as women who, despite their shortcomings and occasional lack of good judgement, simply want to live the best lives possible.

A female-led show from the StarKid cohort is something many fans have been awaiting for a long time, and we’re happy to report that Firebringer is not only one of the company’s funniest and most entertaining shows, it is also a prime example of what feminist media should be. The trope of “strong woman who no one believes in because of her gender sets out to prove them wrong” has been done to death in many stories featuring a female character as the hero, and in a way, serves as a reminder of the “women are the weaker sex” stereotype that we’ve seen even more often.

Firebringer provides a refreshing change from this cliche by skipping right to the part where no one has to question women’s rights because they just exist. In the Firebringer universe, female characters hunt, fight, and hold leadership positions…and no one bats an eye. Of course, it’s important to acknowledge the struggles women have faced in order to gain rights in society, but being presented a story where female characters are powerful without being questioned for it is a refreshing change of pace, and a vision of the society the feminist movement strives for. On the other side of the coin, male characters are allowed to be sensitive and in peril without being mocked by others for it, something even many “feminist” stories are guilty of doing. In fact, the male characters often show self-awareness by poking fun at themselves, another refreshing trope subversion.

But don’t worry, none of this takes away any of the whimsy and fun of a typical StarKid production. The show’s music is percussion-based, which results in a lot of energetic, upbeat tunes. The costumes and set — designed by June Saito and Corey Lubowich, respectively — also contribute to the silly and lighthearted tone of the musical. And the puppets really show that the team is taking things to the next level. (One in particular nearly made us jump out of our seats!)

Firebringer was directed by Julia Albain and Nick Lang, and has a book written by Brian Holden, Matt Lang, Nick Lang, and Meredith Stepien, the latter of whom also composed the show’s music (along with Mark Swiderski) and, as aforementioned, stars alongside Lauren Lopez as one of the two main characters (we think of Meredith Stepien as the Lin-Manuel Miranda of Firebringer). Rounding out the cast are Jaime Lyn Beatty, Jamie K. Burns, Denise Donovan, Brian Holden, Joey Richter, Rachael Soglin, Lauren Walker, Joe Walker (no relation!) and Tiffany Williams. Our longtime StarKid favorites are charming and hilarious as always, but we have to say the new additions (Burns, Williams, and the female Walker) brought a lot of energy to the production, which gave it a fresh vibe. We noticed that there was quite a positive response to Ms. Walker in particular, as every time she came onstage we could hear the crowd murmur in anticipation. Every member of the cast gives a stellar performance, but we have to say Lauren Walker’s might just be our favorite.

Firebringer is a welcome addition to the StarKid catalogue, and one that’s sure to be beloved by fans of the team. The show is currently running at Stage 733 in Chicago Wednesdays-Sundays through August 7. Tickets for the musical as well as various late night shows the team is putting on throughout the summer can be purchased at their website. Firebringer is expected to be posted to Team StarKid’s YouTube channel sometime in the next several months, but those who want to see it online early can purchase a nonline ticket to watch a live stream (or archived stream) of the show on the company’s Gigity.tv page.

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