Monday, March 17, 2014

Much More than a Morse L of a Musical: Theo Ubique Imbues Sondheim's 'Passion' With Impressive Intimacy -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

by Stephen Sondheim
book by James Lapine
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
Thru April 27

Whenever I discover, or latenty rediscover, a place I greatly enjoy--and here I'm referencing Chicagoland entertainment venues but the sentiment has universality--there is a sense of psychic bifurcation (conceivably created the double-edged sword).

For while I am always happy for newfound delights, and believe exploration is the meaning of life, I also can't help but think, "What took me so long to get here, and how much great stuff have I missed out on?"

I had such dual feelings early last week when I visited the venerable blues club Kingston Mines for the first time on Monday.

And I had a sense of déjà too on Friday upon my inaugural attendance of a musical staged at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre in Rogers Park.

Although the proper pronunciation of "oo-bah-kway" does not rhyme with unique, the venue most certainly is.

Within the No Exit Café--essentially the size of a small local bar, located on Glenwood south of Lunt alongside the Morse L station--Theo Ubique stages musical productions with impressive acting, singing, music, sets and panache that belie the intimate confines.

But of course, until Friday night, I had only read about this. 

It seems Theo Ubique dates back to 1997, settled at No Exit in 2004 and only since 2009 has been staging full seasons of four productions (not to negate the task of doing even 1-2 shows per year).

So although I recall reading good things about its renditions of Chess, Aspects of Love, The Light in the Piazza and Evita--and wish I'd gotten to the first two, infrequently staged as they are--it's not like I've missed out all that long, or at least often. 

But in noting their staging of Passion, a "chamber musical" or operetta by Stephen Sondheim--with a book by James Lapine based on the 1981 Italian movie Passion d'Amore--I made a point of getting to Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, especially when half-price tickets appeared on HotTix

I did not opt to partake in the venue's dinner offerings, provided by the nearby Heartland Cafe, and although I wouldn't have minded sharing a table with other patrons, I was able to get one of my own. 

I didn't think to count, but Theo Ubique seems to have about 8-10 cocktail tables, as well as perhaps 25 seats not tied to tables. 

Or at least it does for this production. Impressed before the show even began with a rather formidable stage set--that looked as if it were built into the venue--I asked a nearby tech if the set was a permanent fixture and was told, coincidentally by the set designer, Adam Veness, that the configuration of the No Exit Cafe changes with each production. 

Certainly I've been aware of such impressive spatial adaptations in other Chicago storefront theaters--such as Profiles, where the set designer's ability to dazzle in small space for low-dough was recently showcased by the Tribune's Chris Jones--but became all the more impressed throughout Passion as such nifty features as a fold-out wall bed and a balcony & staircase located behind a section of audience rafters became apparent.

I had seen Passion twice before, once at Ravinia with luminaries such as Patti Lupone, Audra MacDonald and Michael Cerveris, and in a typically superb Chicago Shakespeare Theater rendition in 2007. (See my review of CST's superb current production of Gypsy.)

So I am aware that it is an atypical musical, with a string of sung passages--most epistolary (i.e. the reading of letters aloud) in form--rather than traditionally structured songs, and certainly no "show tunes."

It primarily revolves around a soldier named Giorgio (played here by Peter Oyloe) and two women, his beautiful yet married lover Clara (Colette Todd) and a sickly, theoretically homely woman named Fosca (Danni Smith) who lives at the soldiers' compound where Giorgio is stationed--she is his Colonel's (John B. Leen) cousin--and rather insistently, even creepily, pursues him. 

Perhaps even more so than many Sondheim shows, Passion's beauty, depth and insight may not be instantly accessible, or readily appreciable to the highest level given the narrative's unconventional structure. 

But having reacquainted myself with the music, lyrics, story, etc., I was able to appreciate its brilliance
going into Theo Ubique, and even more so coming out. 

While I felt Oyloe imbued Giorgio with a bit too much of a hang-dog sensibility, he is certainly well sung, and both Todd and Smith, as Fosca and Clara, are terrific. Peter Vamvakas is also notably good as Dr. Tambourri, who tends to both Fosca and Giorgio.

I don't know if this is a backhanded compliment or forehanded critique, but Smith's appearance as Fosca was not nearly as offputting as perhaps it should have been to enunciate the dichotomy between the two women. But not only do I get that in finding a non-Equity actress who can act and sing as well as Smith, director Fred Anzevino should not have held her lack of homeliness against her, but Sondheim himself has noted the same issue with Donna Murphy, who originated the role of Fosca on Broadway in 1994 and won a Tony for it.

In the commentary of the DVD of the Broadway production, Sondheim says the following about Murphy, who despite ghostly makeup and an attached mole, lacked the "genuinely frightening, like a skull-come-to-life" appearance of Fosca in the movie he adapted:
 "It does change the value of the show, because as one looks at it, despite Donna's acting, she's a plain woman, not a frightening ugly one, which is what she was in the movie. In the movie she was scary."
Similarly, and this isn't a knock on her or her acting in the role, Smith's Fosca never felt all that scary to me, nor the sense that Giorgio's opinion of her could readily evolve.

But a little imagination can go a long way, and even with just a 4-member orchestra, there was nothing that felt small about the production, despite the close-knit surroundings.

And given the themes of Passion, the intimacy was an estimable plus. 

I can't say that I was quite swept away as I was by Chicago Shakespeare's Gypsy--or as best I recall, its Passion--and apples to apples I may have settled on a @@@@ rating rather than awarding the extra 1/2@. 

But not only was I delighted by my introduction to Theo Ubique, given their clear spatial and budgetary constraints--and the sub-$20 ticket I was able to score on HotTix--my admiration for their accomplishment seems to rightfully justify @@@@1/2.

Plus, hopefully, your attendance.

And, almost certainly, my return for a future show.

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