Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Theo Ubique Company

Dana Tretta
For at least three weekends in October and November, the funky little neighborhood called "The Heart of Rogers Park," mostly known for its alternative music venues and vegetarian restaurant, will be a Mecca for some of the top non-Equity musical theater talent in Chicago, as Theo Ubique's Cabaret joins Bohemian's Songs for a New World a block away. The hard-working (and frequently working) performers Jeremy Trager, Dana Tretta, Danielle Brothers, Rus Rainear, Bethany Thomas and Eric Martin get some well-earned showcase roles in an impressive production of the Broadway classic as revived and revitalized by Sam Mendes a decade ago. Director Fred Anzevino has followed Mendes' lead in actually performing the piece in a nightclub, the company's home venue of the No Exit Café, but he's made the additional innovation of reducing the cast from 16 to 10 and the band to just piano and drums.

You don't miss the extra six ensemble performers. The reduction places more focus on the characters and the book scenes, even though the cabaret numbers are fully staged in provocative Fosse-esque style by Maggie Portman. In many productions, the social comment within the piece can easily be upstaged by the flash of the pieces ostensibly performed in the Kit Kat Club. In this one, the intimacy of the 20-something-seat space helps us better connect with the characters. Somewhat thinly drawn in Joe Masteroff's book, the performers have to play subtext to fully bring them to life. Our proximity to the performers allows us to catch the physical cues they give to communicate their below-the-surface feelings. Anzevino lets the actors take their time in playing characters that seem to struggle to find even the words they're willing to say, let alone the ones they choose to keep to themselves.

Danielle Brothers gives a stunningly touching performance as Fraülein Schneider that would impress on any stage, I'd venture. Effectively made-up to look the character's age, she brings depth to the lonely spinster forced by the rise of the Nazis to give up her first proposal of marriage. Playing her Jewish love interest Herr Schultz, Rus Rainier keeps the cuteness written into the role in check, giving us a believable old man who won't allow himself to acknowledge the extent of the Nazi threat. By making these two more than stereotypes of sweet seniors, we're made to experience the tragedy on a personal level.

Eric Martin is a watchable and likable Cliff. Though his performance feels a bit stiff, he has a clear point of view on his underwritten character —who, it must be noted, is described in the source material by Christopher Isherwood as "a camera with its shutter open, Quite passive, recording, not thinking ..." Martin's vocals are most impressive, though, and he gets to sing "Why Should I Wake Up?" (a song from the original production not included in the Mendes revival). Martin's interpretation as accompanied on piano by Music Director Joshua Kartes makes a case for the ballad as one of Kander and Ebb's underrated gems.

As Sally Bowles, Dana Tretta does a good job with the surface level stuff, but doesn't show us enough of the subtext in the character to get us fully engaged. Jeremy Trager has the pipes and the stage presence to play the emcee, and he deserves credit for not imitating the well-known interpretations of the character by Joel Grey and Alan Cumming. Bethany Thomas plays the prostitute Fraülein Kost, using her powerful voice for a thrillingly frightening "Tomorrow Belongs to Me."

Anzevino makes effective use of the No Exit Café space, placing the performers all around the café in portions of the Kit Kat Klub scenes and keeping the cast onstage during the book scenes. Lighting design by Maggie Fullilove-Nugent and Justin Wardell helps us keep our focus on the performers, even as they appear unpredictably throughout the room. To further the mood, the cast serves dinner and seats the guests before the performance and during intermission. There are sketches by the period artists George Grosz, a noted chronicler of the Berlin in the '20s and '30s, on walls throughout the café. Costumes by Jared Kassoff are in the mold of those used in the Mendes revival and work well enough, though there was no time, room or budget for costume changes, and we get a little tired of looking at them over the nearly three-hour running time.

It takes a courageous company to take on such a well-known piece. This company has put together an impressive production that not only survives comparisons to the film and Broadway productions, but gives us some new insights as well.

Cabaret will be performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. at the No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago. There will be Thursday performances at 8 p.m. on November 15, 29, December 6 and 13. To reserve tickets, call 773-743-3355.

Photo: Chris Cosentino

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