Smokey Joe’s Cafe
At the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
by Dan Zeff
Chicago – When “Smokey Joe’s Café” opened on Broadway in 1995, the critics were only mildly impressed and suggested that this revue of rock “n” roll songs composed by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller would be better served in a small club setting rather than a large Broadway theater. Audiences thought otherwise, and the show ran on Broadway for more than 2,000 performances along with touring large theaters across the country, including a stop in Chicago’s Loop.
Still, the critics had a point. “Smokey Joe’s Café” might be at least as comfortable in a small cabaret setting as in a large Broadway house. The current revival at the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre underscores the point. The Theo Ubique theater is nothing if not intimate. The production fits snugly and naturally into the tiny playing space, with the performers utilizing the aisles as well as the small stage throughout the evening. The compressed setting allows plenty of eye contact between the performers and the audience and even permits a player to select a lady from the audience for a bit of impromptu dancing.
Leiber and Stiller were the Rodgers and Hart of rock during the 1950’s and 1960’s, turning out one hit after another, including several of Elvis Presley’s early blockbusters. “Smokey Joe’s Café” strings together about three dozen of the team’s songs. There is no spoken dialogue and no narrative line to the evening. It’s just a survey of the duo’s best numbers and they are irresistible.
The Leiber/Stoller catalogue includes such first generation rock classics as “Young Blood,” “Searchin’,” “Kansas City,” “On Broadway,” and “Spanish Harlem.” There are the Elvis anthems like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” (as good a pure rock ‘n’ roll song as was every written). There is a delightful brash humor in “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown.” And while the early rock songs were saturated with soppy love songs, mostly about teeny bopper females getting their hearts broken, Leiber and Stoller wrote songs about women you didn’t want to mess with. Consider “Poison Ivy,” “Trouble,” and “I’m a Woman,” a song that should stand just as tall in the feminist repertoire as “Respect.”
The revue underscores just how much fun those early years of rock ‘n’ roll really were. The Leiber/Stoller songbook is toe tapping and their lyrics crackle with wit. The music wasn’t worried about social significance. The team wanted to entertain and give singers some showcase opportunities to raise the rafters.
Like the Broadway original, the Theo Ubique show features an ensemble of nine performers, five male and four female. The cast is young and enthusiastic and mostly sings decently enough to bring the songs home. The best voice belonged to Sydney Charles, who was underused in the production. At my performance an understood took the place of Robin Dasilva, whose large voice was missed in “Fools Fall in Love” and other belting numbers. The remaining cast members were Justin Adair, Kasey Alfonso, TJ Crawford, Vasily Deris, Jaymes Osborne, Steven Perkins, and Britt-Marie Sivertsen.
Director-choreographer Brenda Didier concocted numerous jaunty dance bits that demonstrate her performers are at least as good as hoofers as singers. Sivertsen was particularly good in the sexy “Teach Me How to Shimmy” number. The musical accompaniment comes from a nifty quartet seated just off stage, led by honking saxophonist Joshua Therriault and pianist-music director Jeremy Ramey.
The physical production centers mostly on Bill Morey’s costumes, grungy in the first act and dressier in the second act. The set consisted mostly of movable props. This is not a big scenic show. The music takes care of business without any elaborate stage pageantry. As usual, the informality of the Theo Ubique experience is enhanced by the performers mingling with the crowd as waiters or just stopping by to chat.
At my performance, the audience was dominated by senior citizens who doubtless danced to Leiber and Stoller’s songs at their high school proms. But the loudest and most exuberant reaction came from a clutch of youngsters whose parents might not even have met when the songs were first recorded. But the young people recognized quality when they heard it. For them, “Smokey Joe’s Café” isn’t a nostalgia trip, it’s a glorious compendium of rock ‘n’ roll at its most pleasurable. Amen to that.
“Smokey Joe’s Café” runs through November 11 at the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, 6970 North Glenwood Avenue. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $34 and $39 with dinner packages available for an additional $25. For tickets, visit www.theo-u.org.
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars. October 2012
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The Light in the Piazza
At the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –“The Light in the Piazza” opened on March 12 at Theo Ubique and has now been extended into midsummer, and counting. It’s gathered a sheaf of rave reviews and the tiny theater is sold out by the week, possibly the most improbable local hit in recent memory.
It’s not that we don’t expect quality work from Theo Ubique. The company has carved out a respected niche for itself, mostly in revues celebrating significant American composers. And yet I saw a staging of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” there that would have honored the stage of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. But “The Light in he Piazza” is a full-scale Broadway musical, winner of six Tony awards in 2005 and a previous visitor at the giant Auditorium Theatre in Chicago and the popular in-the-Round Marriott Theatre. There may have been some concern that Theo Ubique was rashly stepping up in class. Not a bit of it.
After the first 10 minutes the audience knows the show is in good hands. By the end of the evening spectators should be convinced that this was the only way to do and see “The Light in the Piazza,” on a stage about the size of a large suburban home patio. It all happens through a miraculous blend of beautiful singing, pinpoint character casting, and directing that raises intimacy to a new plateau.
“The Light in the Piazza” is an adaptation of a novel about a Georgia woman and her daughter touring Florence and Rome during the 1950’s. Margaret Johnson and her 26-year old daughter Clara accidentally encounter an eager young Florentine named Fabrizio, who immediately takes an intense liking to Clara, who returns the regard in a dual case of Love At First Sight.
So far the story has the makings of a nice romantic soap opera, whether the American and Italian youngsters unite or ruefully separate and return to their own cultures. But there is a twist to this story. Fourteen years ago in their hometown of Atlanta, Clara suffered a head injury that stopped her emotional and intellectual growth at the age of 12 while her physical body continued to mature into her 20’s. Fabrizio loves Clara, unaware that he loves an adolescent girl mentally. And Clara doesn’t know she is different, just that her parents seem over protective.
Margaret tries to steer her daughter away from a match she feels is hopeless but neither Clara nor Fabrizio want to be denied. At the same time Margaret is enduring a loveless marriage with an indifferent husband. The husband, learning of the romance, wants to jump on the first plane to rescue their daughter from disaster. Margret is inclined to let the relationship play out. She’s tired of saying no to Clara. This likely is the young woman’s final chance for happiness and the mother is willing to let the dice role.
This gives away perhaps too much of the story but not the final resolution. That’s well worth waiting for.
Fabrizio’s family supplies the bulk of the supporting characters. The father operates a necktie store in Florence and rules his home as a benevolent dictator. He’s a droll man who likes Clara and also likes Margaret though they are both married. Fabrizio’s mother is a typical Italian hausfrau. Giuseppe is Fabrizio’s brother, married to the tempestuous Franca, who bridles loudly at her husband’s infidelities. The audience spends much time with this lively and sympathetic family, and while they speak Italian throughout the musical, patrons will have no difficulty following the dialogue, Italian being the expressive language it is.
Kelli Harrington gives a performance of subtly and depth as Margaret Johnson and she sings wonderfully. This is the role that pulls the entire show together and Harrington’s warmth and humanity in the face of wrenching domestic strains is masterful. Rachel Klippel brings a large trained voice to the role of Clara but it’s Klippel’s acting that quietly dazzles. It’s quite a feat to convince viewers that the attractive woman they see really has the mind of a 12-year old at war with the desires of an adult.
The Italian family is animated and contentious in the true Italian manner, at least as we see them in movies and plays, but there are no caricatures and no patronizing for easy laughs. They are a delightful group as portrayed by Justin Adair (Fabrizio), Pavi Proczko (Giuseppe), Elizabeth Lana (Franca), Denise Tamburrino (the mother), and above all Michael Kingston (the majestic and ultimately wise father). John Leen turns in a couple of strong cameo appearances as Margaret’s husband, trying by transatlantic telephone to stamp out a romantic conflagration he sees leading to catastrophe. William Aaron and Christin Boulette make up the ensemble.
Co-directors Fred Anzevino and Brenda Didier have orchestrated the production so realistically that the charming love story looks and sounds inevitable. It’s difficult to underrate Adam Guettel’s music and lyrics and Craig Lucas’s book for taking a story perilously close to chick lit sentimentality and adapting it into a memorable love story.
Much of the show’s charm comes from the old world flavor of historic Florence and Rome. The Theo Ubique staging must rely on a single set composed of curved arches to replicate city plazas, streets, and the interior of Fabrizio’s home. The atmospheric set by Adam Veness bathed in golden light glow by lighting designer Michael Nardulli provides the perfect visual ambience for the story, further complemented by Bill Morey’s period costumes.
Call “The Light in the Piazza” the miracle of Glenwood Avenue. Eventually the show will have to close, but only when the theater administration calls a halt. There will be an audience for this musical until Theo Ubique decides to move on. And a significant percentage of that audience should be repeat customers.
“The Light in the Piazza” runs through July 14 (so far) at the No Exit Café, 6970 North Glenwood Avenue. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $34 and $39. Call 773 347 1109 or visit www.theo-u.org.
The show gets a rating of four stars. May 2012
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Starting Here, Starting Now
At the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Richard Maltby, Jr., and David Shire aren’t household names among the teams of composers who have contributed to the American musical stage. Although their collaboration goes back to their college days at Yale, they only have two Broadway shows to their credit, “Baby” (1983), a favorite among regional theaters, and “Big” (1996), which ranks among the most expensive flops in American theater history.
But the team has accumulated a vast portfolio of songs that never made it to the stage, about two dozen of which have been cobbled together in a 1977 revue called “Starting Here, Starting Now,” receiving a brisk and entertaining revival at the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre.
There is no dialogue in “Starting Here, Starting Now” and no real storyline. But the accent definitely is on romance, more specifically the ups and downs of guy-gal relationships, with more downs than ups. The songs are presented by a micro ensemble of two young women and one young man. Perhaps because the females have the advantage in numbers, we hear more of their experiences in love. For the most part the ladies are not happy campers in seeking meaningful connections with the opposite sex. They are usually either seeking a new relationship or licking their wounds after a breakup.
Maltby and Shire cover a broad arc of emotions in the love wars, ranging from the joy of loving and being loved to despair, resentment, and confusion when things don’t work out. Some of the songs are humorous, some are serious, and some are in between. But they explore the same theme in all its variety, finding the right mate and hoping the relationship works.
Much of the audience’s pleasure in “Starting Here, Starting Now” resides in the unfamiliarity of the songs. For most spectators, every number will be a fresh listening experience. There are no hit tunes so recognizable that the listener knows the tunes, and their sentiments, by heart.
The success of the show resides in Maltby’s lyrics. Shire’s music works well as the vehicle that carries his partner’s words, yet nobody will leave the theater humming the composer’s melodies. But patrons will happily recall Maltby’s ingenious lyrics to “Crossword Puzzle,” in which a lovelorn young woman attempts a Sunday New York Times puzzle as she ruefully recollects that she drove her lover away because she got all of the words before him. It’s a funny song, to everyone but the heartbroken singer. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, “I Don’t Remember Christmas” portrays a young man bitterly and unsuccessfully trying to convince himself that he’s wiped his mental slate clean of his departed girlfriend.
The revue is just right for the tiny Theo Ubique playing area. The theater has been reconfigured a bit from recent productions to allow for a raised stage dominated by a large double bed. The three performers use the aisles as well as the stage while a trio accompanies them from a snug corner just off the stage. The production takes intimacy to the ultimate, with the singers frequently just inches from the audience.
Stephanie Herman, a ripe blonde, and Hillary Patingre, a slender brunette, handle the music from the female side. They both sing extremely well, with Patingre’s strong operetta-quality voice having perhaps a slight edge. Teddy Boone doesn’t have the vocal chops of his female colleagues but he does nail “I Don’t Remember Christmas,” perhaps the dramatic highlight of the evening.
Director Fred Anzevino knows how to make a virtue of necessity in moving his ensemble around the compressed Theo Ubique performing area. He is assisted by Maggie Portman’s choreography, which is more choreographed body movement than full-fledged dancing, but given the restrictions of the small performing space, her work injects valuable and sometimes witty visual variety.
Musical director Eugene Dizon, presiding from his piano, contributes faultless accompaniment with his rhythm section of Cody Siragusa on bass and Lindsay Williams on percussion. The effective design team consists of Adam Veness (scenery), Michael Nardulli (lighting), and Raquel Adorno (costumes).
Maltby and Shire don’t have the resume of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and other celebrated musical theater teams, but on the evidence of” Starting Here, Starting Now,” they are in the right business. Their songs alow the performers to shine and they are knowledgeably about the vagaries of the human heart. The team has another revue of their later material, called “Closer Than Ever,” that would be another perfect fit for Theo Ubique, especially for the skills of Stephanie Herman and Hillary Patingre.
“Starting Here, Starting Now” runs through November 6 at the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, 6970 North Glenwood Avenue. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 and $30, with meal packages available, served by members of the cast. Call 773 347 1109 or visit www.theoubique.org.
The show gets a rating of three stars. September 2011
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The Lady’s Not for Burning
At the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—Back in 1948, Christopher Fry’s historical comedy “The Lady’s Not for Burning” was proclaimed as the possible inspiration for a renewal of poetic drama in England. Was the Fry play the herald of a new Elizabethan Age in British theater?
The Fry play turned out to be a one-of-a-kind curiosity. Any hope of a rebirth of verse drama was swept away a few years later by the realistic grunge of the Angry Young Men dramatists. But at the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, artistic director Fred Anzevino is convinced that “The Lady’s Not for Burning” is a great play, staging a resource revival that stresses the comedy’s merits, though it cannot obscure its flaws.
“The Lady’s Not for Burning” did not change the course of English theater in the twentieth century, but it remains a play loaded with sparkling wit and zesty epigrams. It’s civilized, sophisticated, and, unfortunately, so in love with its own verbal virtuosity that it sometimes becomes self indulgent and a bit of a dramatic windbag.
The action takes place in a provincial English town in about 1400. The setting may be late Middle Ages but the sensibility is totally modern. The characters wear clothing of 600 years ago but they speak and feel like they belong in a present day drawing room.
The wobbly plot centers on a discharged English soldier named Thomas Mendip and a beautiful young woman named Jennet Jourdemayne. Mendip comes to the town mayor demanding to be hanged because he is disillusioned with living. Jennet comes to the town mayor for protection against the local residents offstage who want her burned as a witch, claiming she turned a local dog and bone man into a dog.
There is also a secondary romance involving a 17-year old girl named Alizon and the mayor’s two nephews. Alizon is engaged to the supercilious Humphrey Devize but his passionate brother Nicholas is madly in love with her, or so he says.
The roster of personages in the play is filled out by Margaret Devize, the sardonic mother of the two brothers; a chaplain who wanders through the play with an air of vague bewilderment; a worldly town justice; the young town clerk who eventually wins Alizon; and a town drunk who appears at the end to set in motion the happy ending.
Most of the characters express themselves in exceedingly clever dialogue. Fry tosses off one urbane verbal sparkler after another. The play is written in blank verse but it sounds like eloquent and amusing prose.
The problem is that for too much of the play the characters are speaking machines, rather than living and breathing people. There is kind of self-congratulatory facetiousness about their eloquence that robs them of dramatic heft. After all, the play centers on one character who is suicidal and another threatened with being burned alive. These are serious matters but they are mostly buried in Fry’s relentless flights of linguistic high comedy. For much of the evening we get the feeling that it’s the playwright talking and not his characters.
The Theo Ubique company mostly handles Fry’s verse flourishes with commendable felicity. The company proved it could handle classical comedy with its remarkable production of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” So it’s not surprising that the theater could fill the stage with performers very comfortable with Fry’s elegant dialogue.
As Thomas Mendip, Layne Manzer doesn’t capture the cynicism and world weariness that lies beneath the soldier’s surface wry humor. But it’s a demanding role that Manzer gets through well enough. More successful is Jenny Lamb as Jennet, a young woman who loves life as much as Mendip claims to despise it.
The most accomplished acting comes from several supporting roles. Jeff Predmore is a hoot as the blustering mayor. Susan Fay displays a superb high comic style as the mother of the two brothers. If this theater ever decides to revive “The Importance of Being Earnest,” they have their Lady Bracknell in place. I also liked Andrew Pond as the droll justice, Drew Longo as the bemused chaplain, Adam Kander as the mayor’s clerk, David Weiss and especially Eric Martin as the feuding brothers, and Sonja Field as Alizon.
High marks go to Theresa Hamm, who designed and made the numerous period costumes, including some fairly sumptuous gowns for the ladies. Nate Crawford’s set consists of a small stained glass window and a table and chair, but that’s all the show needs (or has room for) in the intimate cabaret performing space. David Heimann designed the lighting and Ethan Deppe the sound.
So maybe time has not been kind to “The Lady’s Not for Burning.” There are too many purple patches of dialogue that wash over the listener like beautiful noise. But it’s still refreshing to listen to scintillating dialogue composed by a master poet. We don’t get this kind of verbal brilliance in our theater these days.
“The Lady’s Not for Burning” runs through October 31 at the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, 6970 North Glenwood Avenue. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25, with dinner packages available. Call 800 595 4849 or visit www.theoubique.org.
The show gets a rating of three stars. Sept. 2010
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Sweet and Hot
At the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Harold Arlen was one of the great American songwriters from the 1930’s to the mid 1950’s, though he was never associated with a hit Broadway musical or Hollywood film score, with the iconic exception of the movie classic “The Wizard of Oz.”
Arlen wrote songs for over a dozen stage revues and musicals and more than two dozen movies. Nobody remembers his Cotton Club musicals of the 1930’s, but Arlen’s Hall of Fame contributions to those shows include “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” “I’ve Got the World on a String,” and “Stormy Weather.” Likewise the 1946 Broadway musical “St. Louis Woman” has disappeared into obscurity but not so the standards “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.”
The Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre is inaugurating what looks like a welcome summer tradition of songwriter revues by presenting a compilation of Arlen’s songs in a show called “Sweet and Hot.” Next summer the theater is promising a revue of sons by George M. Cohan.
“Sweet and Hot” is a no frills, “And then he wrote” show. The revue is all songs—no dialogue, no thematic groupings, no reliance on production glitz. Three young men and three young women perform, in varying combinations, about three dozen numbers from the Harold Arlen songbook. Most of the songs are immediately recognizable, at least to audiences on the windy side of middle age. There are also a handful of less familiar tunes, some of them deserving wider recognition, like the hilarious “Lydia the Tattooed Lady from 1939 and “Push De Button,” chronologically the latest Arlen number, from 19i56-57.
Most of the numbers are love songs, no surprise there. Arlen covered a wide expanse of moods in his romantic songs, from the aching sense of loss in “The Man That Got Away” to the chirpy “Let’s Fall in Love.” Arlen composed “Down with Love” In 1937 and “Hooray for Love” in 1948, demonstrating the man’s broad perspective on the topic.
While Arlen’s music is the heart of the show, equal credit does to an A List of lyricists, who included some of the best in the business, notably Ira Gershwin, E. Y. Harburg, Arlen himself, Ted Koehler, and best of all, Johnny Mercer. Mercer’s words for “Blues in the Night” create a great stand-alone prose poem.
Director Frank Anzevino has made a virtue of necessity in his staging. Anzevino spreads his six performers through virtually every open millimeter of acting space in the ultra intimate cabaret theater. At times the performers are literally inches from patrons sitting at ringside tables in the supper club-style theater interior.
Anzevino moves his ensemble in assorted groupings, spotlighted by David Heimann’s lighting (Heimann also designed the snippets of minimalist choreography). Aside from a couple of tables and lots of filled cocktail glasses, the production has no real set. Bill Morey’s costume design gives the show a distinct 1940’s look.
The female half of the cast consists of Sarah Hayes, Stephanie Herman, and Bethany Thomas. The males are Eric Lindahl, Eric Martin, and Kristofer Simmons. The ladies have the vocal edge, though Lindahl has some solid moments. First among equals in the female trio is Thomas, who provides the show with its first emotional highlight with a stirring rendition of “Stormy Weather,” enhanced by Thomas’s striking resemblance to Billie Holiday. Thomas’s wrenching version of the Judy Garland classic “The Man That Got Away” may be the dramatic apex of the evening.
“Sweet and Hot” is an uncluttered feast of great songs, an artistic and nostalgic commemoration of American songwriting that ended with the assault of rock ‘n’ roll in the mid 1950’s. Older spectators can bask in the music they grew up with. Younger audiences can listen in surprise and pleasure to what they have been missing in American popular music the last half century.
“Sweet and Hot” runs through August 8 at the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre in the No Exit Café, 6970 North Glenwood Avenue. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 with dinner packages available for $45. Call 800 5954 849 or visit www.theo-u.org.
The show gets a rating of three stars.
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At Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—“Chess” opened on Broadway in 1988 and was hammered by the reviewers. The Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire staged the musical in 1990 and the result was one of the more boring shows of that season. The bottom line is that “Chess” isn’t very good. So the revival at Theo Ubique is all the more admirable for making the musical, certainly no neglected classic, at least watchable and listenable.
The mediocrity of “Chess” is particularly startling because so many notable creative names were attached to the original production that opening in London in 1986. The music was written by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, who composed all those hits for ABBA. Tim Rice, who collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber so successfully, wrote the lyrics.
The London version actually was a big hit, perhaps because English audiences enjoyed its strident anti-American slant. American playwright Richard Nelson rewrote the book for audiences in the United States but to little avail. “Chess” died on Broadway and quickly dropped off the music theater radar.
“Chess” is a love story with a Cold War backdrop. So not only is the show poor artistically, it’s historically outdated. The chief characters are the Russian world chess champion--a pleasant young man named Anatoly--and a challenger named Freddie--an obnoxious young man represents the ultimate Ugly American. The love interest comes from an attractive young Hungarian named Florence, who starts the story as Freddie’s second in the chess competition, and soon falls in love with Anatoly.
Antaoly and Florence ultimately fall victim to Cold War politics, betrayed by both the Russians and the Americans, represented by a CIA type named Walter for our side and a secret service agent named Molokov for the Russians. Both are cynical manipulators but Molokov seems a far nicer guy than Walter.
The storyline veers between the chess competition involving Anatoly and Freddie and the star-crossed love affair between the Russian and the Hungarian. None of it is intrinsically interesting, either in dialogue or music. The original production produced a couple of numbers that became mini hits in “One Night in Bangkok” and “I Know Him So Well.” Neither song sounds particularly notable today, even though the Theo Ubique performers give both a good shot.
The Theo Ubique revival demonstrates how less can be more in the theater. Limited by a postage stamp-sized stage, the production omits virtually all scenery and invests everything in the quality of its ensemble, abetted by some vivid costumes designed by Bill Morey, Brian Hoehne’s atmospheric lighting, and superior musical accompaniment by a small band conducted by Ryan Brewster.
There are only six roles that matter in “Chess” and they are all cast handsomely. Courtney Crouse is perfect as the hateful young American chess player. For some inexplicable reason, the composers give Freddie a second act number that attempts to explain his nastiness (a difficult childhood, of course) that rings totally false. Better to preserve Freddie as an unregenerate louse, especially in Crouse’s spot-on portrayal.
Maggie Portman has been an ornament on the musical theater scene locally without really having a breakout show on a major stage. She comes up big again, this time as Florence, singing beautifully and giving the Hungarian a dramatic depth of feeling that provides the only genuinely moving moments in the show. Jeremy Trager is a sympathetic and intelligent Anatoly and he has the best male singing voice in the production.
Complementing the love triangle are Anthony Apodaca and Jon Leen as the amoral American and Russian secret agents, the ultimate winners in the tawdry game of geopolitics. Stephanie Herman has some quality scenes as Anatoly’s abandoned wife.
Co-directors Fred Anzevino and Brenda Didier skillfully maneuver their ensemble on and off the stage so the show never looks cramped. In its necessary intimacy, “Chess” probably is more affecting emotionally at the Theo Ubique than it was in the large Broadway theater. Didier spices up the action with some sharp and inventive choreography danced to a turn by the chorus of Jenny Guse, Jenny Lamb, Ben Mason, and Travis Walker, who also play additional multiple roles along with John Taflan as the chess match arbiter.
There is so much talent on stage and behind the scenes that one could wish that the Theo Ubique brain trust had selected a show more worthy of its group of fine singer and actors. But the audience will happily take what it can get from this enterprising company in its unique dinner theater space.
“Chess” runs through April 25 at the No Exit Café, 6970 North Glenwood Avenue. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25. For another $20, the spectators can enjoy dinner an hour before curtain time served by members of the cast. The entry for this show is stroganoff, either beef or mushroom (the mushroom is better). Call 773 347 1109 or visit www.theoubique.org.
The show gets a rating of three stars. March 2010
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The Taming of the Shrew
At Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—Shakespeare can be found in the most unexpected places in Chicago. Consider the charming and inventive staging of “The Taming of the Shrew” at the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre.
The Shakespeare comedy is performed in a small space in the No Exit Café on the far North Side. The audience sits at tables loosely grouped around a platform stage. The rear wall is a large picture window looking out on Glenwood Avenue, where passers-by gaze with bemused expressions at the play acting on the other side of the glass. Pedestrians occasionally wave at the actors, who wave back. Sometimes a performer will leave the café for the street, extending the action into the real world.
The 10-member ensemble operates throughout the café, often addressing spectators directly at point blank distance. Actors placed props on my table for use during the performance (I was alerted not to eat that apple or drink that glass of water). The performers double as sound-effects technicians and as musicians performing Ethan Deppe’s original incidental music. Actors also serve as waiters during the evening.
The production is intimate and personal, but it’s also good Shakespeare. The actors speak the dialogue cleanly and with understanding. This is the kind of accessible Shakespeare that would be an ideal introduction for anyone intimidated by the Bard’s work.
“The Taming of the Shrew” is an early Shakespeare farce that has been treated as a director’s plaything for generations. I’ve seen versions set in the Wild West of the 1800’s, the Commedia dell’ arte world of Italy in the 1500’s, and in the Little Italy neighborhood of New York City in the 1950’s, with Petruchio making his entrance on a motorcycle, not to mention the Cole Porter musical “Kiss Me, Kate,” which may be an improvement on the original. The Theo Ubique revival has a hybrid look, with costumes ranging from faux Elizabethan to thrift store grunge. There is no scenery, the location being identified through the dialogue.
The story centers on the tempestuous romance between the fiery and headstrong Katherina and the fortune-hunting bachelor Petruchio. And that’s the hang-up for modern audiences. At its core, “The Taming of the Shrew” is a tale of wife abuse, with Petruchio harassing Katherina to break her spirit and turn her into a docile and compliant wife. Directors have tried mightily to finesse around Katherina’s beat-down, but there it is, to the discomfort of feminists.
The Theo Ubique staging meets the Katherina-Petruchio conflict head on and with no apologies. The battle is played for laughs. There is no sugar coating to assuage modern sensibilities. The result is a performance that delivers the play as written, a broad comedy with a happy ending.
Theo Ubique director Nick Minas is in complete control of the production. He injects clever touches from time to time, like moving performers onto the street. His production disregards gender in casting Matthew Sherbach as Katherina’s sister Bianca and Cheryl Roy as their father. But mostly Minas trusts the play to speak for itself. There might have been a bit too much slapstick in a scene or two, but the play invites farcical humor.
The production profits from solid performances by the well-cast Jeremy Van Meter as Petruchio and Jenny Lamb as Katherina. Van Meter is a good-looking hunk with the proper macho touch for the dominating Petruchio. Lamb provides the required high-spirited temperament for Katherina. Her realization that she is actually falling in love with her tormentor is deftly executed within the natural flow of the narrative. Maybe Shakespeare knew what he was doing after all.
The supporting cast does a first rate job of delineating a blur of supporting characters. Audiences can get lost in all the Gremios and Grumios and Tranios and Lucentios and Hortensios and Vincentios. It helps that the company has such vivid physical variety, from the rangy Ben Mason (Hortensio) and Ryan Jarosch (Grumio) to the comic portliness of the whimsically named J. Preddie Predmore (Gremio). There are good complimentary contribution by Steve Gensler, Mike Oleon, and Mikey Vines (in multiple roles of both genders).
The production is so refreshing that I wondered if I was overrating it because of my exceedingly modest expectations entering the theater. I don’t think so. This is a well-acted and well-conceived revival enhanced by its distinctive performing environment. Theo Ubique specializes in musicals but on the evidence of “The Taming of the Shrew,” the company should reserve one slot each season for a classic comedy.
“The Taming of the Shrew” runs through October 4 at the No Exit Café, 6970 North Glenwood Avenue. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 with dinner packages available. Call 773 347 1109 or visit www.theoubqiue.org.
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars. Sept. 2009Contact Dan at Zeffdaniel@yahoo.com