In its well-known 1971 song, Led Zeppelin popularized the term stairway to heaven. Upcoming Chicago musical “The Incredible 6,000 Foot Ladder to Heaven” makes this idea reality, as the protagonist builds a 6,000 foot ladder to heaven in order to reunite with her recently deceased father.
Written by Chicago-based writer and composer Ryan Martin and directed by Elliot Hartman, the musical serves as a modern fairy tale utilizing childhood innocence and hope to explore the universal pain of losing a parent.
Opening Feb. 8 at the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival (CMTF) in The Edge Theater, “The Incredible 6,000 Foot Ladder to Heaven” puts a twist on the fairy tale formula with a pop rock musical score carrying each scene.
A fast-paced adventure mixing comedy and drama, the musical explores grief in a unique and heartfelt manner through 12-year old Hadley’s (Rachel Guth) unexpected loss of her father (Jordan Pokorney).
As Hadley tries to grapple with her new reality, she lashes out, especially toward her similarly grieving mother (Rachel Whyte).
It’s not until she meets Spider (Maureen Sanderson), a new girl in town, that Hadley figures out a way to channel her grief. With the help of Spider’s inquisitive mind, Hadley uses the woodworking skills taught by her late father to build a ladder in the hopes of reaching him in heaven.
The musical is inspired by Martin’s own loss of his mother. Combining the real and unreal, the passion at the core of the show shines through the interpersonal relationships conveyed. Its minimalistic design choices push the heart at the center of the story to the forefront.
Despite the grand scope of the story, it’s grounded by the real, human experience of losing a loved one.
The fairy tale aspects allow the characters to heighten the pain felt by a child in this situation and bolster the emotional core. Despite this, the musical still makes room for sharp comedic breaks from the drama, often through Sanderson’s Spider.
The musical’s crew includes Loyola senior Alex Watts, who’s a design assistant. In this position, Watts helped create trailers and promotional art for the production.
Adding to the play’s success, 22-year-old Guth brings childhood innocence seamlessly to the role of Hadley. The Northwestern grad started her career as an extra in a Connecticut production of Cinderella at five years old and continued to love musical theater ever since.
Despite the large difference in her age to her character’s, Guth related to the experiences Hadley faces. Even though she’s a kid, Hadley’s journey is universal due to its focus on her grieving process and the strength the character showcases. The musical portrays her with nuanced maturity, which makes the character relatable to likely audiences.
“This is the first role I’ve played in a very long time that’s actually age-appropriate to me [because of the] unimaginable journey,” Guth said.
The set is comprised of blocks and little else, leaving much of the design to the imagination. The minimalistic set works in the musical’s favor, as it allows a focus on the sharp writing. Guth credits the musical’s strength to the writing.
“For me, it’s all about the text because the character does not exist without what she says and what it says about her,” Guth said.
With an emotionally driven fantastical story, “The Incredible 6,000 Foot Ladder to Heaven” will likely deliver a great experience for all ages. The musical’s witty nature and emotional core work together to create a fast-paced, worthwhile journey.
“The Incredible 6,000 Foot Ladder” will play at The Edge Theater (5451 N. Broadway St.) until Feb. 25. Tickets can be purchased on the CMTF official site, www.cmtf.org.