Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at No Exit Cafe. Directed by Fred Anzevino. With Jordan Phelps, Jill Sesso, Christopher Logan, Kellie Cundiff, Michael Reyes. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.
Theater review by Megan Powell
Theo Ubique’s latest, finely crafted revue opens with “Bilbao Song,” an ode from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s 1929 musical Happy End that recalls the headiness and hangovers that transpired in Bill’s Beer Hall, a good-time dump where chairs and bottles fly but the fun was “fantastic.” The fun eventually ends, once the beer hall is cleaned up into a middle-class joint, “just another place to put your ass.”
That trajectory mirrors that of Weill, who was barely out of his 20s when he collaborated with Brecht on the songs so intensely rendered in the first act of A Kurt Weill Cabaret. Comprising most of the act, their six-movement “Mahagonny Songspiel” salutes, then denounces Mahagonny, another debauched and dreamlike place. Its premiere in 1927 in Germany was so electrifying that, according to a biography of Weill, he soon after entertained offers to promote its “Alabama Song” as a “pop-song in America.”
While that dream didn’t come to fruition at the time (though decades later “Alabama Song” was covered by avant-pop stars; both The Doors and David Bowie performed versions), the rise of the Third Reich eventually pushed Weill to the U.S. and to collaborations in the 1930s and 1940s with the best and brightest playwrights and lyricists of Broadway, including Maxwell Anderson—who co-created his haunting standard “September Song”—Ira Gershwin, Langston Hughes and Alan Jay Lerner.
Furniture doesn’t take flight, but with the dissipated stance of the performers, German fare on the menu, and the grit of Rogers Park outside the door of the No Exit Café, we might as well be in a smoky Weimar-era club in Berlin during this first act. Director Fred Anzevino and music director Jeremy Ramey maximize the café’s immediacy in the staging and singing: The ensemble—outfitted first with a careless sexiness and later in satin, sequins and tuxes—prowls the stage and corners, all of them inhabiting every note of Weill’s music, which bewitchingly synthesizes high (classical) and low (jazz) musical forms.
And there’s connection on a bigger scale, too; Theo Ubique’s shrewd selection of songs from Weill’s deep catalog creates a satisfying arc, the first half of them outlining the dark and recklessly longing spirit that filled German cabarets between the two World Wars, and the latter suffused with the bright and charming yearning of the golden age of Broadway. Even though the show’s shift is more atmospheric than narrative, a story is told within each song, shared with urgency, not strain.
Christopher Logan is especially lithe and impassioned during the “Mahagonny” sequence—and then expertly fills drink orders during intermission. Jordan Phelps sensitively interprets longing and loneliness in “Here I’ll Stay” and “Lonely House,” while Michael Reyes both sings and looks the part of the jaded but wistful lover sharing his “September Song.”
Jill Sesso balances pluck and vulnerability, deftly singing about her “Trouble Man,” and Kellie Cundiff’s gorgeous soprano invests emotion in every syllable. The accompaniment by Ramey is so rich and rollicking that watching him alone is entertaining, and lighting designed by Maya Michele Fein is a veritable second accompanist, impeccably timed to punctuate each number.
The grit of the first act resurfaces just a bit in Weill and Brecht’s true hit pop song, “Mack the Knife”; the incongruity of “a body oozing life” rousingly described by a group in fresh evening clothes points to the fact that, as his wife Lotte Lenya once said, “There is no American Weill, there is no German Weill…There is only Weill.”