Chicago Theatre Review
Nobody Does It Better
A Marvin Hamlisch Songbook – Theo Ubique
A music box has been opened and beautiful songs are pouring from it within the No Exit Cafe. This absolute treasure trove of songs is a Valentine of music, made even more glorious by some astonishing vocal work and exquisite dancing, and is Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre’s newest original production. Conceived, arranged and directed by the multitalented Courtney Crouse and Aaron Benham, and featuring an array of electrifying choreography created by Chris Logan, this is Chicago’s newest must-see show for the Spring.
Marvin Hamlisch, the gifted composer, who passed away a few years ago at the comparatively young age of 68, is the genius behind such hit shows as “They’re Playing Our Song,” “The Goodbye Girl,” “Smile,” “The Sweet Smell of Success” and, his homage to the theatre, “A Chorus Line.” Mr. Hamlisch, who belongs to the exclusive EGOT society of artists who’ve been awarded an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony, is a Golden Globe and Pulitzer Prize winner, as well. This musical genius may be better known to the general public for his hit songs composed for a number of film scores. They include “Same Time, Next Year,” ”Sophie’s Choice,” “The Sting,” “The Champ,” “Ice Castles,” “The Spy Who Loved Me” and, of course, the title song for “The Way We Were.”
In the hands of Masters Crouse, Benham and Logan, and under the loving guidance of Artistic Director Fred Anzevino, this production features six relatively new performers to the Chicago area, all of whom dazzle and captivate with their unbridled enthusiasm, winning smiles, trained musicality and skilled dancing ability. Once again Adam Veness, Chicago’s hottest young scenic designer, has created a chic, stylishly elegant environment upon which to showcase the considerable talents of these actor/singers. Although Mr. Crouse has made excellent use of the various levels within the No Exit Cafe, Veness has provided him a canvas for creativity, a classy after hours bar, with ample space for Mr. Logan to choreograph his very impressive, intricate, full-out dance numbers. And, not relegated this time to a darkened corner of the theatre, Aaron Benham takes his rightful place in the spotlight upon the apron of the stage, the piano-playing star of this performance ensemble.
This musical revue has been carefully thought out and includes, not only most of Hamlisch’s best-known, best-loved songs, but introduces audiences to some of his lesser known works, as well. The show offers over two dozen of his compositions in a nice mixture of poignant old-fashioned ballads, moody atmospheric pieces and infectious uptempo showstoppers. The revue opens with the wistful, “The Last Time I Felt Like This,” sung by the handsome and charming Caleb Baze. This young singer has the smoothest, silkiest, most mellifluous tenor voice imaginable, making him the perfect performer to open this show. He’s joined by the entire company, with the charismatic Patrick Byrnes launching the contagious, “They’re Playing Our Song.” Sarah Wasserman, who would make a great leading lady in “Gigi” or “Carnival,” provides comedy and angst in “A Beat Behind.” Ms. Wasserman, the lovely Sarah Larson, whose “Rita’s Tune” is an early highlight of this production, and the effervescent Stephanie Hansen, are sensational in the song that Hamlisch confessed was his favorite of all the songs he wrote: “At The Ballet,” from “A Chorus Line.” Garrett Lutz, so memorable in the recent Chicago production of “The Full Monty,” is affecting with “How Can I Win,” from “The Sweet Smell of Success.” Patrick and Sarah enchant with their duet from “The Goodbye Girl” entitled “An Improvised Love Song;” and the entire company leaves the audience wanting more by closing Act I with Lesley Gore’s “Sunshine, Lollipops & Rainbows.”
The second act opens with Aaron Benham’s virtuoso Entr-acte, melding everything from Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” to familiar strands from Hamlisch’s many other hits. Stephanie, who might be the pullout star of this show, is sparkling, sassy and playfully sexy with “The Traveling Life,” a song written especially for Liza Minnelli. Caleb brings a melancholy sweetness to “I Cannot Hear the City,” and Sarah Larson puts her own touch on “Disneyland.” Patrick produces a lump in the audience’s throats with “If You Really Knew Me,” and the show concludes (all too soon) with a Full Company medley of “The Way We Were” and “What I Did For Love.” They offer a finale of “Nobody Does It Better” (which should be Theo Ubique’s slogan) combined with a repeat of “They’re Playing Our Song,” as well as their encore number, the haunting love theme from the movie “Ice Castles,” “Through the Eyes of Love.”
The combination of artistry found in Marvin Hamlisch’s gorgeous music, Courtney Crouse’s sensitive direction, Christopher Logan’s astoundingly expressive choreography and Aaron Benham’s layered musical arrangements and brilliant accompaniment make this one of the finest revues Theo Ubique has ever presented. It’s a privilege for Chicagoans to have this continuously impressive company available to them, just up in Rogers Park. With every new production Fred Anzevino’s cabaret theatre reinvents itself and comes out smelling like a fragant rose. This show is no exception. The combined talent found within this intimate space will inspire audiences to leave this performance with a feeling that “Nobody Does It Better.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 4-July 12 by Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at the No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 800-595-4849 or by going to www.theo-u.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.