Review: Murderous Fun With Some Kinks in American Psycho: The Musical by Kokandy Productions

American Psycho as originally conceived by author Bret Easton Ellis has a great elevator pitch. “A novel about an investment banker in the Reagan eighties who at night becomes a serial killer.” Just on its face it sounds brilliant. Blood n’ guts n’ satire. I’m hooked. Take my money.

But it’s Ellis’s stomach-curling pitch-black comedic execution that implanted the tale in the public’s memory (who can forget the bit with the rat?) and made the story ripe for adaptation. Ellis’s 1991 book became a highly memified Mary Harron-directed 2000 film and a successful 2010 musical by Duncan Sheik (music and lyrics) and Robert Aguirre-Sacasa (book).

Now Kokandy Productions brings American Psycho: The Musical, directed by Derek Van Barham, to the Chopin Theatre for its Chicago debut. Overall, it’s an electrifying production dripping with style. The American Psycho property has an established aesthetic—suits, slick hair, spooky club lighting—and people will happily find that iconography and vibe in the production. Strong, though not perfect, lead performances delivered regular laughs. However, issues with the staging and set created unnecessary and disappointing hurdles

Like the other American Psychos, the musical is heavy on tone but light on plot. It’s a simple story, the unraveling of a narcissist, a bad to worse trajectory. In the beginning Patrick Bateman, played competently but with some questionable choices by Kyle Patrick, our money-obsessed murderous protagonist and narrator, conceals his burgeoning bloodlust under a mask of cool-guy normalcy. He introduces himself in Ralph Lauren tighty-whities, showing off a—to borrow an inspiringly insipid phrase from the source material—hardbody physique. Speaking in a flat tone, he brags about his muscle definition and lavish apartment. He’s a yuppie consumed by excess. His perspective is clear when during his proverbial I Want Song, “Selling Out,” he sings, “I want it alllll!”

Quinn Simmons, Caleigh Pan-Kita and Danielle Smith. Photo by Evan Hanover.

Then the chorus comes in, and that’s when the show is at its best. None of the songs pass the can-I-hum-this-for-days test, but they’re punchy and fun, with an '80s electric feel, and Breon Arzell’s choreography has a sort of robotic rigidity that complements the disassociated headspace of the main character. Special praise goes to the lighting design by G “Max” Maxin IV, who also created the scenic and projection design. The lights are probably the most impressive aspect of the show. The primarily white stage is a great canvas for bold blues and flashy reds. The show adopts a neo-noir look, neon and shadows, which is most effective during large dance numbers, club scenes, and driving sequences. When Bateman drives through New York this gorgeous blue suffuses the stage and you could swear it’s a Michael Mann movie.

The show’s first act settles into a series of vignettes, slice-of-life moments between Bateman and his friends and girlfriend Evelyn (Caleigh Pan-Kita). Everyone is vapid and casually cruel. “Get this,” says Bateman’s friend Tim Price, played by Will Lidke, at a dinner, “So far today, from the second I left my apartment, I’ve counted twenty-three homeless people. Twenty-three.” Bateman talks with his colleagues, he orders strange food at fancy restaurants, he hosts parties with his girlfriend. And it is during these moments with more than three cast members on stage that the show betrays its greatest weakness. Unfortunately, the stage built for this musical just isn’t doing it any favors.

Unlike previous productions, this American Psycho is performed on an alley stage, probably no more than five feet wide. The stage runs through the center of the theater, splitting the room and imitating a fashion runway. Which is odd. Nothing about the musical suggests it would benefit from an alley stage, and the decision generated some severe logistical problems

Due to the design of the stage, scenes that require multiple actors, like the famous business card sequence, are staged in an awkward staggered fashion. The performers stand in a row and face the audience. They inhabit their own two-foot space and talk outward, almost like a live reading or a Beckett play. We imagine they’re speaking in a round even though they’re obviously not. One could argue the staging is a personification of the characters’ isolation, but I'm not convinced. I'd say it was a poor decision by Van Barham and Maxin IV.

Kyle Patrick. Photo by Evan Hanover.

The murder and torture sequences are brief and quick and, for the most part, bloodless. Rather than splash the stage with fake blood, whenever Bateman axes or stabs someone, the ghost of an earlier victim throws red confetti at the murdered actor. The result is more implied violence than real violence. It’s serviceable but underwhelming. People looking for a slasher fix would probably be happier elsewhere.

At the end of the day, though, American Psycho lives and dies on its main character. He carries the burden of audience expectations. So how’d he do? Kyle Patrick deserves some praise for purposefully avoiding mannerisms that would remind the audience too much of the Christian Bale performance. Whereas Bale’s mock sincerity manifested as a sort of larger-than-life crooning madman, Kyle Patrick plays it as more sardonic. His Bateman has a lilting sarcastic quality, almost arch, kind of like a Bond villain.

When his secretary Jean, played by Sonia Goldberg, asks that he get them a reservation at Dorsia, Bateman replies, “So-o-o-o-o, Dorsia is where Jean wants to go, Jean’s just like everyone else . . .” And while Bale delivers the line with a sly insincere smile, Kyle Patrick gives it more of a “La-dee-da, what do we have here?” affect. It’s bold to do things differently, and more often than not his portrayal plays well. But sometimes the sarcasm comes off as bored or idle, which doesn’t exactly work. Bateman, who is more of a mood or an attitude than he is a character, should seem exacting, commanding the world either with cold swagger or aggressive bravado. When he seems indifferent the audience pulls away.

As far as performances go, the real MVP was Caleigh Pan-Kita’s Evelyn. Portraying Bateman’s materialistic and clueless girlfriend, she stole the show in every scene and played very well off Kyle Patrick’s deadpan approach. They really were the odd couple of a depraved sitcom. More than a few times she spoke with this whiny Kardashian resonance, which established her character perfectly. Evelyn’s song “You Are What You Wear” was probably the show’s catchiest, though again it doesn’t stick with you long.

American Psycho is a fun time at the theater, no doubt about it. Yes, a wider stage would have been a wise decision, but it was a solid show nonetheless. You come for the style, you come for the dancing and the lights and the biting satire, you leave satiated.

American Psycho: The Musical by Kokandy Productions at the Chopin Studio Theatre at 1543 W Division St., has been extended thru December 10. Running time is 2.5 hours with an intermission. Tickets are $40-$50 with $30 for seniors and students.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Adam Kaz