REVIEW: Sweet and Hot (Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre)

Sweet, Hot, and Effective

 

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Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents
  
Sweet and Hot: Songs of Harold Arlen
   
Adapted by Julianne Boyd
Directed by
Fred Anzevino
at
No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood (map)
through August 8th  | 
tickets: $25- $45  | more info 

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Director Fred Anzevino and his Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre work best when they keep things simple. Evita and Chess succeeded so well because they masterfully pared down these sprawling musicals to fit in their beloved No Exit Café. Sweet and Hot is driven by a much more minimal concept—the revue involves a sextet of crooners belting out the greatest hits collection of songsmith Harold Arlen. While  Anzevino’s production lacks depth, the tunes are beautifully sung and concisely delivered. Even in a room full of theatre critics on a hot June evening, the romance in the candlelit Rogers Park storefront was palpable.

sweet-and-hot-03Sweet and Hot is Theo Ubique’s most recent addition to a long line of revues focusing on a single composer (past honorees include Kurt Weill and Jacques Brel). Instead of piecing together his own collage of songs, Anzevino relies on a prefabricated set-list gathered by Julianne Boyd. It sounds like an opened time capsule revealing some of the best compositions of the first half of the 20th Century. The talented cast pipes out numbers like “Blues in the Night” and “I’ve Got the World on a String” with a refreshing amount of energy, blowing off any dust these famous melodies have gathered.

To ratchet up the intimacy, Anzevino tosses out most of the band, saving only the piano. Musical director Steve Carson rearranges the pieces to accommodate. The result is delightfully straightforward, imparting the cozy, informal feeling of a couple of friends singing around an upright.

Decked in ‘40s attire, the cast of six all have distinguishable takes on their pieces. The highlight here is Bethany Thomas, who crams the tiny space with passion and bravado during the slow-burning “Stormy Weather” and “The Man That Got Away.” She is joined by the glamorously blonde Stephanie Herman and the adorable Sarah Hayes. The Gentleman Trio comprises of (usually) gloomy Kristofer Simmons, dashing Eric Martin, and the boyish Eric Lindahl. One of the most interesting aspects of the production is that the over-the-top optimistic numbers (“Happy As the Day is Long,” “Get Happy”) all have a tinge of delusion here, giving them a heftier dramatic weight. It isn’t completely nailed down, but it gives them a little subtext. However, the portrayals overall are pretty shallow and mostly rely on jazz club-ish charisma and emotional stakes. There isn’t really any through-line or character in the piece; the cast sort of musters up whatever mood the songs require. A little more dramatic cohesion would make the show feel less like a recital and more like poignant, vibrant theatre.

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Along with lyricists such as E.Y. Harburg, Johnny Mercer, and Ira Gershwin, Arlen (best known for penning the melodies of “The Wizard of Oz”) created a songbook with pieces ranging from the bizarrely comic to the downright tragic. The cast can reach into both reservoirs. For example, Simmons’ rendition of “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” (a Groucho Marx stand-by) is droll and goofy, while his “One For My Baby (And One More for the Road)” is heartrending. Carson even gets his own moment to shine with the charming “This Time the Dream’s On Me.”

Anzevino’s staging occasionally comes off as having actors move just to have actors move, and “Over the Rainbow,” which receives a mention on the poster, could have received a lot more attention. Fortunately, David Heimann’s choreography always infuses energy into the songs. I’m not usually a fan of musical revues. Most of the time, they seem to me like live compilation albums meant to score a few more dollars from deceased songwriters. But with Theo Ubique’s focus on intimacy and simply presenting songs the whole team obviously loves, they come up with a show that has a tangible effect on the audience. This Sweet and Hot is a living experience.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

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REVIEW: No Exit (The Hypocrites)

Looks like hell to me

 

Hypocrites Theatre production of No Exit

   
The Hypocrites present
   
No Exit
   
By Jean-Paul Sartre
Directed by
Sean Graney
at the
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through July 11th  |   tickets: $20-$25   |   more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

In order to receive a degree in theatre at my university, every student has to take an Intro to Design class. In this class, every student had to come up with a design concept for Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist spiel No Exit. And then we spent long hours drawing costume sketches and pinning together a model box. I’ve seen Sartre’s vision of hell set in a pirate-themed hotel, an emptied-out swimming pool,  and an Arkansas basement (in case Hypocrites Theatre production of No Exityou’re wondering, my own stayed pretty close to the stage direction’s Second Empire-style, with a few liberties, of course). So I was pretty excited to see how a full production of the play would pan out, especially in the hands of director Sean Graney and his Hypocrites.

Featuring a massive nude statue and bright pink walls, the ridiculous design did not disappoint.

For those that weren’t in my Intro to Design class, No Exit paints a grim picture of the afterlife, where you’re locked in a garish room with people you soon learn to hate. Trapped in the tiny dwelling are the journalist Garcin (Robert McLean), the Sapphic postal-clerk Inez (Samantha Gleisten), and the coquettish Estelle (Erin Barlow). They attempt to deal with the situation, forging and shattering alliances like Dante combined with “Survivor.” They famously learn that “hell is other people.” There’s a reason existentialists aren’t known for their cheerfulness.

I got the impression that there was some environmental theatre going on here—the hot, stuffy Athenaeum studio theatre provided the audience with their own Hell. Or maybe it’s all coincidence. Even if there really was no deliberate plan to find the most uncomfortable seats possible, the Hypocrites would be smart to take responsibility. The experience definitely helps you connect to the characters.

Graney and scenic designer Tom Burch demand intense physical acting from the cast. The room is tiny and crowded with furniture and bodies. On top of all this, the whole set is on a steep rake. The design requires accuracy and focus; any sloppiness could end in making the chaos too chaotic.

McLean, Barlow, and Gleisten clamor and climb wonderfully, conquering the walls, sloped floor, and sofas. The three claw at each other in lust, anger, and desperation. More importantly, they can balance their characters’ evil qualities with vulnerability and rational thinking. Sometimes they can’t get a firm grasp on Sartre’s lyrical language. McLean is particularly guilty here, sounding wooden and dull at bits. He clearly gets the pettiness and jealousy of Garcin, though. All three add enough personal quirks and charms to make these borderline psychopaths engaging. John Taflan, clad in the uniform of a Napoleonic army officer, is endlessly fascinating as the valet. He’s tall, weird, and intimidating, which is what I think the Craigslist ad for a doorman in Hell would ask for.

Hypocrites Theatre production of No Exit

As with most Graney productions, there are exciting conceptual impositions on the text. Many work beautifully. All of the characters carry loads of cash on their person, but, alas, money doesn’t do much for you postmortem (it seems you can either flip coins or operate the vibrating chair). There’s one wonderful moment where Estelle throws fistfuls of change out of her purse, creating visual and aural bedlam.

Other choices don’t stick as well. For example, there’s a globe-stereo-thing the valet brings in. I appreciated the soundtrack it provided (Gaga, Beach Boys, the Police), but it just sort of ended up there. Then there is the cheetah-inspired costuming that begins to appear about three-quarters through. Graney also doesn’t quite find the ending—the story resolves a bit too much for a tale of eternal woe.

Basically, the concepts behind this No Exit were way better than the ones formulated by any freshman in my class. It could’ve been the weather, but I’d like to believe it was the fiery energy and dedication of the cast and team that made that theatre so sweltering. Graney’s version of Hell is no place I’d want to be.

   
   
Rating: ★★★