REVIEW: She Loves Me (Writers Theatre)

Writers’ creates a sweet-smelling love story

 

Kevin Gudahl, Heidi Kettenring and Bernard Balbot in SHE LOVES ME - now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.

   
Writers’ Theatre presents
   
She Loves Me
  
Book by Joe Masteroff
Music by
Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Directed by
Michael Halberstam
at
Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe (map)
through November 21st  |  tickets: $65-$70   |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

When a day brings petty aggravations and my poor frayed nerves are all askew, I forget these unimportant matters pouring out my hopes and dreams to you.’

Writers’ Theatre presents She Loves Me, a romantic comedy written in the 1930’s that went Broadway (1960’s) before going Hollywood (1990’s) – all originating from the the 1930’s play Parfumerie by Hungarian playwright Miklós László. This original “You’ve Got Mail” is set in a 1930’s perfumery. Georg and Amalia are bickering co-workers. Unbeknownst to either, they are also anonymous pen pals in a lonely hearts club. The big clandestine meet-up disappoints and surprises both of them. Can Heidi Kettenring and James Rank in SHE LOVES ME - now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe. detestation blossom into affection? In a time when relationships bud, bloom, and wither with a Facebook status click, She Loves Me is an uncomplicated, lyrical love letter. Writers’ Theatre delivers this old-fashion romance with first- class singing, certifiable casting, and collectible vintage costumes.

The four-piece orchestra is faintly visible but perfectly audible on the stage behind a faux storefront. Under the musical direction of Ben Johnson, the band hits the whimsical balance to accompany the action and the singers. Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock developed a score that showcases each ensemble member with a solo opportunity. Individually, the singing is outstanding. Collectively, a repetitive number thanking customers is a hilarious, harmonious, memorable send-off. In the leads, Rod Thomas (Georg) and Jessie Mueller (Amalia) channel the hate-love in a believable comedy combo as scorned co-workers and love-searching optimists. Thomas brings ice cream to a depressed Mueller in a pivotal scene that is a sweet she-likes-me moment. Thomas is all sugar (again) to Mueller’s salt in the cutesy pairing of opposites. Under the direction of Michael Halberstam, the entire cast blends together to create an enjoyable light, breezy romantic scent. Providing powerful whiffs with a lingering sass, Heidi Kettenring (Ilona) sings of betrayal and new love with wit and resolution. Setting the ambiance for a romantic atmosphere, Jeremy Rill is the animated waiter dishing up laughs with a side of showboat.

 

James Rank and Bethany Thomas in SHE LOVES ME - now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe. Rod Thomas and Jessie Mueller in SHE LOVES ME - now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.
Jessie Mueller in SHE LOVES ME - now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe. Jeremy Rill, Bethany Thomas and Andrew Goetten in SHE LOVES ME - now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe. Ross Lehman, Kevin Gudahl and Rod Thomas in SHE LOVES ME - now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.

Dressing up the ensemble with 30’s finery, Nan Zabriskie provides a multitude of exquisite costumes. The chorus coming and going from the shop provide a marathon vintage fashion show. Beautiful! Halberstam, along with choreographer Jessica Redish, provide many amusing, visual stunners, including; Christmas shopping and silhouette dancing. Not quite the Anna Karenina of romantic literature, She Loves Me has all the guarantees of a blockbuster romantic comedy. It requires limited emotional or intellectual investment and promises laughs and a happy ending. She Loves Me makes finding love simply a pluck of the petal to determine the emotional connection: she loves me, she loves me not, she loves me… Aw, if it was only that easy, dear friend!

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Running time: Two hours and thirty minutes includes a ten minute intermission

 Rod Thomas, Kelli Clevenger, James Rank, Bethany Thomas, Kevin Gudahl and Stephanie Herman in SHE LOVES ME - now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.

 

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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: Chess (Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre)

Chess – an ’80s period piece

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Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents

Chess

 Book by Richard Nelson, lyrics by Tim Rice
music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus
Directed by
Fred Anzevino and Brenda Didier
Musical direction by Ryan Brewster
At
No Exit Cafe, Rogers Park
Through April 25
(more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Where you’re seated in a theater often has a big impact on your perception of a show. If, as I did at opening night at Theo Ubique’s Chess, you sit far to one side of the stage, 3 feet from the amps, with a post blocking your view, you’re apt to enjoy the production rather less than if you get to sit at a front-and-center table specially reserved for you.

IMG_0580It’s rare that a 60-seat house has terrible seats, but this one does. The cramped cabaret set-up of No Exit Cafe assures that some people at the back will have heads blocking their view of the stage. Other lucky patrons must perch on barstools throughout the performance. As there are no reserved seats for anyone short of the critic from the Chicago Tribune, plan to arrive very early for a choice of decent views, and if you want to be assured of a table, book the pre-show dinner package for $20 above the $25 ticket price.

Directors Fred Anzevino and Brenda Didier have done the best job possible in blocking the show against the handicaps of their setting, and the cast offers some first-rate performances, but from my seat this deeply flawed, overlong and dated musical perhaps seemed exceptionally askew.

A largely unmemorable mishmash of Hungarian folk music, cheesy pop, dirgelike anthems, country-style ballads and ABBA-esque tunes by that band’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, with lyricist Tim Rice, the score originated as a concept album in 1984. Ryan Brewster‘s five-piece band and most of the singers do it full justice, but the musical style, like the Cold War plot, seems stale.

IMG_0654 If you’ve heard of one of the songs, it’s likely to be the maudlin love song “I Know Him So Well,” which was covered by Barbra Streisand, Whitney and Cissy Houston, and most recently by Britain’s Got Talent phenomenon Susan Boyle in a TV duet with Elaine Paige, who sang it on the original concept album and in the 1986 West End production.

Produced, to mixed reception, as a largely sung-through musical on the London stage, Chess was reworked, with a new book by Richard Nelson, for Broadway. Theo Ubique uses Nelson’s script, which was supposedly made nicer to Americans and added narrative and dialogue. The West End version played three years; the New York show folded after 68 performances in 1988, shortly before the Berlin Wall fell.

The 1972 World Chess Championship match between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky inspired this study in black and white, which seems less like the three-dimensional chessboard than the flat cartoon Spy vs. Spy.

We have the pure Russian chess champ, Anatoly, seeking freedom and love, and ultimately sacrificing them. The Ugly American challenger, Freddie, selfish and vain. Naive Florence, the Hungarian-refugee chess coach who fickly wavers between them, a smart woman who behaves stupidly for love. Stoic Svetlana, Anatoly’s deserted wife, seeking to regain her loveless marriage (or is it merely their revoked apartment?). The tricky Russian spy. His callous and conniving American counterpart. There are no likeable characters here.

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Jeremy Trager’s Anatoly comes closest to being a real human being, with a beautiful voice to boot. As Florence, Maggie Portman brings a soulful country-western musical style and a bouncy stage presence befitting her role’s up-and-down character.

The rest are pretty much comic-book figures, though Jon B. Leen offers some subtlety and a fine voice as Anatoly’s minder, Molokov. Stephanie Herman captures cool Russian beauty as Svetlana. Courtney Crouse, as Freddie, acts the jerk well but has some problems with pitch and volume; his vocals are often swallowed by the band. Anthony Apodaca and John Taflan ham it up as Freddie’s “agent,” Walter, and the tournament Arbiter, who somehow manages to do his job without the aid of a chess clock.

The production has loads of talent, but not enough to bring this musty musical into the present. Those who sit staunchly among ABBA fans and ’80s nostalgia buffs will probably enjoy Chess more than others

Rating: ★★½

 

NOTE: Allow time to find parking. For some performances, theater patrons may use the lot at Christian Mission Elim, 1615 W. Morse Ave.

All photos by Johnny Knight