At the Venus Cabaret Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—The Mercury Theater has just opened the Venus Cabaret Theater next to the main theater and based on the success of its first production, the new venue will be a considerable ornament to the Chicagoland theater scene.
The cabaret theater resides in what was a pub and comfortably seats 80 people. There is no stage, just a cleared area in front of the audience, with additional acting space spread to the side, especially around the bar. The rear stage area is dominated by a floor-to-ceiling brick wall. A minimal number of basic props are moved on and off. The construction took two years and $1 million but the result is tasteful and comfortable, at least for the viewers.
The first production is a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” with the next revival scheduled to be the Monty Python spoof “Spamalot.”The opening shows suggest that the cabaret will present musicals. The instrumental accompaniment for “Company” comes from a tight trio of piano, bass, and reeds that occupies a corner of stage left that sounds qualified to handle the heavy lifting of any Broadway or off Broadway score.
The theater is administered by the gifted Mercury Theater artistic duo of executive director L. Walter Stearns and musical director Eugene Dizon, who have repeatedly demonstrated they are the equals of any creative administration in even the largest theater operations in the area. They have definite chosen wisely in selecting “Company” as their debut offering.
“Company” is Sondheim’s 1970 exploration of what it means to be thirty-something and middle class in New York City. Sondheim summarizes the show as “A man with no emotional commitments reassesses his life on his thirty-fifth birthday by reviewing his relationships with his married acquaintances and his girlfriends. That is the entire plot.”
The 35-year-old birthday boy is Robert, also variously referred to as Bob, Bobby, Robby, and Rob-o. The scenes are framed by a surprise birthday party five couples throw for the single Robert. Three former girlfriends also pass through. To enhance the celebration, the Venus Cabaret provides platters of nibblies before the show and a slice of Robert’s birthday cake for each patron at the end of the intermission.
The married couples are united in trying to get Robert hitched, though each couple is struggling to keep their marriage afloat. Robert likes the idea of marriage because it offers the companionship and sense of meaning his bachelor life seems to lack. On the other hand, Robert surveys the stresses and unhappiness he sees in the married people around him and he doesn’t want to go that troubled route. So Robert agonizes over his dilemma, both feet emotionally planted in mid air.
The show is a superb meld of George Furth’s sharp, witty, and often cynical book and Sondheim’s razor sharp music and lyrics. This is very much a New York City show, or at least the New York City of the thirty-something generation of the 1970’s—pseudo-sophisticated, jaded, impersonal, applying a veneer of cool over fractured relationships, and heavily soaked in booze.
There are no hit songs in the Rodgers and Hammerstein sense, but every number grabs the ear, whether the mood is desperation, yearning, anger, frustration, or romance. One matron sings scornfully of the Ladies Who Lunch, those women with too much money and too much time on their hands and too little meaning in their daily lives. It’s a song Heather Townsend delivers with a passion and fierce scorn than that turns the number into a stunning cry of the heart.
The show stopping scene of the night is led by Jena Coker-Jones who performs Sondheim’s tongue-twisting “Getting Married Today” about a bride to be who freaks out on her wedding day and proclaims “I’m not getting married today” with a frenzy that is both hilarious and heartbreaking. Robert’s one-time girl friend Marta sings a hymn to the impersonal, soulless life of the big city in “Another Hundred People,” a triumph for Kyrie Courter.
Holding it all together is David Sajewich as Robert, a young man who wears a permanent expression of smiling bemusement mixed with perplexity and confusion as people on all sides take him on as a project for the married life. Robert spends the show basically fending off all the insistent people around him who claim they want only fulfillment and happiness for him, but then he looks at their own tottering marriages and considers the record.
The entire ensemble is praiseworthy, even if a few of them seem a bit young for their characters. But that’s the tiniest of quibbles. The 14 performers are cast with spot-on precision, each etching a distinct personality. They include Ryan Stajmiger, Hannah Dawe, Frederick Harris, Nicole Cready, Derek Self, Nicole Armold, Greg Foster, Steve Silver, Allison Sill, and Kiersten Frumkin.
The characters wouldn’t be the most sympathetic or interesting people to know in real life, but in the “Company” urban world of flawed relationships they each fit neatly in Sondheim’s world. Nearly all the performers were unfamiliar to me, just another testimony to the vast talent pool in Chicagoland theater.
The musical accompaniment by Dizon (piano), Dan Kirstan (bass), and Cara Hartz (reeds) is more than adequate. The stage space may be limited but Aubrey Adams still manages some zesty dances for the multi-talented ensemble. Video designer Liviu Pasare has created a mosaic of projections showing New York City in its many guises that contribute much effective atmosphere to the production. The fine design team is filled out by Robert Kuhn (costumes), Dustin L. Derry (lighting), and Alan Donahue (scenery).
“Company” is my favorite Sondheim musical so I entered the cabaret theater with anticipation mingled with some apprehension. The show is a proven hit and Stearns is a master director, but would the untried theater really work? Sure, the Theatre Ubique has done wonders presenting musicals in a tiny and outwardly inhospitable space, but can theatrical lightning strike twice on Chicago’s north side? Not to worry. “Company” is staged with as much professionalism and art as any musical in Chicagoland right now.
The show gets a rating of
“Company” runs through June 3 at the Venus Cabaret Theater at the Mercury Theater, 3745 North Southport Avenue. Performances are Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $ $65. Call 773 325 1700 or visit www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. April 2018
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