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Twin Cities musician Chan Poling crafts new musical

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Shawn Hamilton As Damon
Jennifer Leigh Warren portrays the glamorous Venus, the alter ego of Maggie, a middle-aged cosmetics scientist who discovers an elixir of youth in the musical "Venus."
Photo courtesy of Michal Daniel

"I'm the One" the strutting soul tune that closes the first act of "Venus," came right out of what Chan Poling calls his suitcase of songs. 

Chan Poling and Myron Johnson
Ex "Suburbs" member Chan Poling (right) is the creator of "Venus," which is on stage at the Ritz Theater. Myron Johnson of Ballet of the Dolls is the director.
Photo courtesy of Michal Daniel

When he played with the legendary Minneapolis new wave group The Suburbs, Poling would generally take lead vocal on his own material. Now he's more inclined to write for characters that inhabit musicals. 

In "Venus," two of the main characters occupy the same body. 

Maggie is a middle-aged scientist employed by a cosmetics conglomerate who discovers an elixir of youth. She transforms into Venus, a super model/pop star who spends the rest of the musical finding her way back to her friends, family and her real self. 

Poling says a lot of themes pop up along the way.

"Celebrity, glamour, truth, beauty, privacy, sexism, ageism, love, it's all there," he said.

But Poling is quick to add that "Venus" is not a morality tale or  empowerment art. It's a romantic, musical comedy and what audiences take from it, apart from what Poling hopes will be a good time, is up to them.

Shawn Hamilton
Venus belts it out. Ex "Suburbs" member Chan Poling created "Venus" the musical partly in response to what he calls "lame" rock musicals.
Photo courtesy of Michal Daniel

"I want them to bring their own selves to it and come away with what they want to come away with what they want to come away with, and not be told, it's boring to hit people over the head," he said.

"Venus" is one of six Chan Poling musicals in various stages of completion, and it's ten years in the making. It's also the only one in which Poling wrote the music, lyrics and the script. 

He's loved musical theater ever since his dad used to bring Poling to New York to see Broadway shows.  He's also moved to write them because he finds the modern rock musical to be somewhat lacking. 

After seeing shows like "Rent" and "Spring Awakening," he came away feeling that: "The rock music part of it was pretty lame," he said. "It was more like musical theater guys trying to write rock music. So I thought what if I came and I brought some really exciting visceral pop songs to the theater, maybe I could change that."

So far, critics haven't been too kind to "Venus." After seeing a preview performance, Dominic Papatola of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote that it was "contrived, by-the-numbers, and disappointing." Nonetheless, the PG-13 musical may already have a built-in audience, teenaged girls.

Nancy Gruver
Nancy Gruver is founder of New Moon Girls, an online magazine and support network for 8 to 15- year-old girls. Gruver says what's great about "Venus" is it explores female self esteem and notions of beauty in a fun and entertaining format.
Photo Courtesy of Nancy Gruver

"I was so excited to hear about this musical Venus," said Nancy Gruver, founder of New Moon Girls, an online magazine and community for girls aged 8 to 15. 

Finally, said Gruver, entertainment that addresses notions of self worth, beauty and social acceptance, issues popular culture doesn't adequately deal with.

"Number one, I love that this is a musical," she said. "It's not a drama. It's fun and it really presents some things women and girls grapple with day to day in their lives, in a way that is empowering and not depressing."

"Venus" presenters have been reaching out to Twin Cities schools, colleges and the YWCA to bring girls and young women to the show. 

Not surprisingly, Chan Poling's ultimate aim is for "Venus" to make it to Broadway. He and a small group of investors have put up over a $100,000 to mount the production, and he's been in touch with contacts in New York. 

But to maintain interest, butts must somehow find their way to the seats of the Ritz Theater before "Venus" finishes its run on May 24th. Poling finds parallels to the music business.

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"To me it's like making a rock and roll record, he said. "It's like, you get your band together, you go in the studio, you make a record, you go out on stage and perform it, and then if people like it and you sell records, you're working."

Poling figures to break even and possibly make a small profit, they'll have to sell just about every ticket.