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Darren Criss from 'Glee,' Starkid launch Chicago home with 'Starship'


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Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

What do you do with your limited down time if you’re on a demanding TV series like “Glee?”

If you’re Darren Criss, who plays Blaine on hit Fox series, you write a musical.

“Sometimes I wish I could clone myself,” he said by phone from the “Glee” set in Los Angeles. “Launching a musical while you’re on a show like ‘Glee’ is not the most ideal of conditions, but I have to roll with the numeral blessings.”

Criss, a co-founder and ensemble member of the Chicago-based theater troupe Team StarKid, composed songs for the group’s inaugural Chicago production, “Starship.” The show opens Feb. 11. He says it gave him some newfound perspective.

“Creating songs from nothing, driving around Los Angeles to meet with an arranger and Skype-ing with a cast and crew of my friends from another city is tough,” Criss said. “‘Glee’ is a wonderful reprieve and almost like a vacation by comparison. I say some lines, sing some great songs someone else has written and get to act with some truly talented people.”

Team StarKid started when Criss was still a student at the University of Michigan. The troupe first tasted success in 2009 with a parody “A Very Potter Musical” for which Criss contributed songs and played the titular character. The ensemble posted the full musical on YouTube and the clips went viral. (Entertainment Weekly voted it one of the top 10 viral videos of 2009.) In 2010, Criss worked on the music and several ensemble members wrote the script for “A Very Potter Sequel” while they were living in Los Angeles, setting the stage for what would become the bicoastal nature of the company.

Last summer, the company made the decision to relocate the ensemble to Chicago.

“I was living with [StarKid ensemble members] Matt and Nick Lang and Brian Holden and we were all struggling to find work,” Criss recalled. “We were really at a crossroads with our careers and our lease was up, so we made a democratic decision to move the company.”

“Chicago was a logical choice,” Holden said. “New York is too expensive and Los Angeles doesn’t really have a theater scene. Chicago seems to nurture new companies.”

“I’m certainly not comparing us to Steppenwolf or Lookingglass,” Criss added, “But both of those companies started out just like we have.”

Criss, who was also trying to gain some traction with a music career, decided to stay behind.

“I wasn’t prepared for how tough it would be emotionally,” Criss said. “I really missed my friends. We had all been proactive in trying to ignite the repertory company and I had been quite vocal about wanting to do ‘Starship.’”

“‘Starship was already in the works before Darren landed ‘Glee’ and I don’t think any of us initially thought that the show was going to throw this huge wrench in the works. We’ve had ensemble members write shows from Los Angeles before,” said “Starship” assistant director Holden. “And then Darren’s career sort of exploded and we had to ask him if he could still do this and he told us that he thought he could.”

“I’m like any other composer,” Criss joked. “If you give me five years to write a symphony, I’m still going to be asking for more time two days before it’s due.”

Turning down the project was not an option for Criss.

“StarKid is a huge chunk of my heart and soul,” he said.

The original concept for the show came from StarKid ensemble member Joe Walker, who suggested to Criss a musical parody of “Starship Troopers.”

“I’ve been kicking that idea around for a couple of years,” Criss said. “The show isn’t all mine, of course. We are very much an ensemble and everything we do comes out of this sort of hive mind-set.”

Criss describes the book for the show, written by director Matt Lang with Holden, Walker and Nick Lang, as “The Little Mermaid meets Aliens.”

“There’s an insect named Bug who, like Ariel, longs for another world. He idolizes these starship rangers and really wants to be one,” he said. “It’s a fun love note to sci-fi fans.”

The cast includes a dozen actors as well as puppets designed by Russ Walko (who also created some of the puppets for the Katy Perry Christmas episode of “The Simpsons.”).

Criss spent last weekend in town working with the cast and the show’s musical director, Clara Wong.

“It goes beyond just working on the show,” he said. “I miss my friends and seeing them is my birthday (Feb. 5) gift to myself.”

The show’s initial run is sold out; something Criss credits to the ensemble’s fanbase, not the hit TV show.

“I was in the Philippines playing a concert over Christmas and assumed they’d want to hear stuff from ‘Glee,’ but they actually wanted to hear stuff from the ‘Potter’ musicals,” Criss said. “StarKid has a devoted international following thanks to YouTube.”

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