Chicago Theater Review: A KURT WEILL CABARET (Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 26, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

STAY FOR A WEILL

An impeccable labor of love, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre’s heartfelt homage, A Kurt Weill Cabaret, pays unstinting tribute to a deft and dynamic composer. Kurt Weill’s impressive range stretched from the agitprop intensity of Three Penny Opera, the signature piece for the decadent Weimar Republic, to the Broadway Christopher Logan, Jordan Phelps, Michael Reyes in A KURT WEILL CABARET.sophistication of One Touch of Venus and Lady in the Dark. The particular brilliance of Fred Anzevino’s staging, presented on the fishnet-decorated stage of the No Exit Café, is to contrast the two sides of Weill, doing full-throated justice to a quarter century of glorious craftsmanship and sublime inspiration.

In the first half, with five superb singers wearing Expressionistic makeup, derbies, and proletariat threads, we get a rich sample of the sardonic, jagged, driving style of Weill’s pre-1933 German collaboration with Bertolt Brecht.  The European Weill is richly contrasted in the second act with the smoother, sweeter, more languorous postwar Weill on Broadway, collaborating with the best librettists available—Ira Gershwin, Maxwell Anderson, Langston Hughes, Alan Jay Lerner, and even comic poet Ogden Nash. Now his torch songs and lilting ballads conjure up loneliness, longing, and a certain world weariness; for this, our quintet are now dolled up in black evening wear, strutting and slumming it to the high life or the lowdown (costumes by Bill Morey).

Christopher Logan, Kellie Cundiff, Jordan Phelps, Jill Sesso, and Michael Reyes in A KURT WEILL CABARET.

Accompanist and arranger Jeremy Ramey’s musical direction rises to each occasion, erupting into socialist abandon with the brutally nostalgic “Bilbao Song” from the sardonically titled Happy End, then mellowing into the sultry intimacy of “The Tango Ballad,” sexily rendered by Christopher Logan and Jill Sesso. Jordan Phelps and Kellie Cundiff are equally combustible in the bitter sweet “Love Song.” Completing the early Weill section is a generous medley, the “Mahagonny Songspiel” from the 1927 saga of the rise and fall of a sinful city: Necessitating as much acting as crooning, this is an elaborate, almost operatic, condensation of a furious work straight from the pre-Nazi days of an already divided Berlin.

Jill Sesso, Kellie Cundiff in A KURT WEILL CABARET.

A gorgeous showcase for indisputable talents with excellent diction and acting musicality, the second act teems with familiar and lesser known Weill delights from his many fruitful collaborations. Among the latter is the hilarious patter song “The Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria” in which Logan, Phelps, and Michael Reyes delightfully predict the colorful New World to come, circa 1945 New York. Equally affecting is Jordan’s sad “Here I’ll Stay” from the now obscure musical Love Life, a post-Brigadoon creation by Alan Jay Lerner.

Jordan Phelps, Christopher Logan, Michael Reyes in A KURT WEILL CABARET.

Archly sung by Logan, the comical love song “A Rhyme for Angela”—from the utterly forgotten 1945 The Firebrand of Florence—bounces with Ira Gershwin’s backhanded wit, while the Langston Hughes number, “Lonely House,” beautifully rendered by Phelps’ tender tenor, is as close to blues as Weill could get.

Michael Reyes, Jordan Phelps, Christopher Logan in A KURT WEILL CABARET.

But, of course, the Weill standards seduce from first hearing to latest repetition. We’re regaled with the cosmopolitan sheen of such melting music as “Stranger Here Myself,” “Westwind,” and the prayerful “Stay Well” from the South African-set musical Lost in the Stars. Sesso and Logan dance the delights of the passionate “Speak Low” (choreography by Christie Kerr), Sesso belts out “Trouble Man” with contagious conviction, and Reyes’s winsome rendition of the evergreen “September Song” couldn’t be closer to the month. Cundiff and Sesso have great fun with “Saga of Jenny,” the catalogue song about fateful indecision.

Michael Reyes, Jill Sesso, Jordan Phelps, Christopher Logan, Kellie Cundiff in A KURT WEILL CABARET.

The very best selections come last as the company sink themselves into a deeply moving and elaborately haunting a cappella “Lost in the Stars”—as existential a statement of our plight on this planet as ever played Broadway—and finally, inevitably, “Mack the Knife,” done in full 40s’ syncopated swing, a perfect way to end an enthralling evening.

(back)Michael Reyes, Jordan Phelps, Christopher Logan, (middle) Jill Sesso, Kellie Cundiff and (front) Jeremy Ramey in A KURT WEILL CABARET.

photos by Adam Veness

A Kurt Weill Cabaret
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave.
Thurs at 7:30; Fri & Sat at 8:00; Sun at 7:00
scheduled to end on October 19, 2014
for more info, call 800-595-4849 or visit www.theo-u.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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