Our Turn Coming Through: Sondheim Tribute Revue Sings at Theo Ubique

Photo by Elizabeth Stenholt Photography

Though he never achieved the commercial dominance of some of his contemporaries, Stephen Sondheim was more important to the artistic development of musical theatre than anyone save perhaps his mentor Oscar Hammerstein. Blending cynicism and heart, intellectual sophistication and deep emotion, and complex musicality with clever, sharp wordplay, he left a creative legacy that will forever reshape the landscape of American theatre. Theo Ubique celebrates that legacy with their new production, Sondheim Tribute Revue, a cabaret-style performance drawn from across his body of work. Although some of the higher-level creative choices don’t quite cohere, the evening is a showcase for a strong cast and provides them space to honor one of America’s most important artists.

A two-hour revue can’t possibly achieve a holistic picture of an artist’s work, especially with a catalog as prolific and prodigious as Sondheim’s. Still, this is the area in which the Theo Ubique show shines. Most of your favorite numbers will appear here, making the show a good primer for those unfamiliar with his work. and the evening includes some deeper cuts as well. Saturday Night (1954) and Passion (1994) are well-represented here despite being seldom produced in full. Likewise, two songs from the criminally underrated Anyone Can Whistle are a welcome addition. You could quibble with the set list — for instance, I would’ve loved to hear a song from the Dick Tracy soundtrack, and I’d rather see “A Little Priest” than “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” — but there aren’t really any bad Sondheim songs, and most of the biggies you’d want to hear in such a revue show up here.

Of course, the music loses a little of its sonic power without full orchestration, but the creative team plays around with things a bit to find some fresh resonances. For instance, “Pretty Women” from Sweeney Todd is mashed up with “Pretty Lady” from Pacific Overtures and “In Praise of Women” from A Little Night Music. The juxtaposition highlights a motif across the three shows, and the performers find some strong comic possibilities for the song. Similarly, “Being Alive,” perhaps the greatest eleven o’clock number in the history of the musical, is turned into a trio, and Ismael Garcia sings their part in Spanish. These touches help to bring something new to the material.

If there’s a bone to pick with the show, it’s that director (and Theo Ubique artistic director) Fred Anzevino and set designer Manuel Ortiz don’t quite conquer the challenge of staging a musical in the Howard Street Theatre, a space that one might charitably call intimate (or, less charitably, claustrophobic). The room is configured as a thrust stage with a runway surrounded by cafe tables and seating in risers behind those. On the one hand, this arrangement allows for a comfortable intimacy between the actors and audience. In fact, the performers introduced themselves to the audience members to begin the show, which was a nicely personal touch. But that closeness breeds two problems that nettle the evening.

The first is that, no matter where you sit, an actor is going to be in a disadvantageous location for your seat at some point. If you’re fortunate enough to be at the end of the stage, this isn’t a huge problem. If you’re seated on the side, however, someone is going to be standing directly behind you and singing multiple times during the show. Having to turn around isn’t the end of the world, but it’s also not ideal.

The bigger problem, though, is that the space often feels like it’s working at loggerheads with the performers. Much of the choreography feels cramped in the space, most notably in “Hymn to Dionysos,“ which includes a toast to Sondheim’s memory. The moment should feel celebratory and explosive, but it’s oddly strangled by the use of space. Throughout, most of the numbers lack a ton of visual panache. A few pieces are memorably staged — “Broadway Baby” features the cast dressing Elya Bottiger in jewelry and furs as she sings, for instance — but I often felt as if the cast’s energy exceeded the constraints of the theatre.   

These are relatively minor quibbles, however, thanks to the strong performances of that excellent cast. Each of them finds moments that show the effect that Sondheim’s music can have on an audience. Joe Giovannetti’s lively tap routine during “Class,” a charming comedy song from Saturday Night that he nails, is the dance highlight of the evening. Maliha Sayed’s rendition of “There Won’t Be Trumpets” is an explosive take on an underrated gem. Alongside Bottiger’s excellent rendition of “Me and My Town,” I left hoping for an Anyone Can Whistle revival with those two in the Lee Remick and Angela Lansbury roles. Max DeTogne has a classic leading man voice and presence, which makes the goofy physical comedy he brings to “Hades” all the more surprising and fun. Finally, Garcia is perhaps the most versatile performer in the cast, bringing moving pathos to the ballads “Unworthy of Your Love” and “Finishing the Hat” while showing impressive linguistic dexterity and comic chops on “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” and “Sunday in the Park with George.” 

By the time the show closes with “Our Time” from Merrily We Roll Along (another unfairly obscure song), this cast will have won over the most cynical of observers. And that’s befitting a show that’s very much is a labor of love. In fact, each of the performers delivers a monologue about what Sondheim and his work has meant to their lives as artists and as human beings. Those moments serve to further enrich this celebration of the American musical’s greatest practitioner. But ultimately, hearing these songs interpreted with such care and respect is enough.

Sondheim Tribute Revue is presented by the Theo Ubique and is now playing at the Howard Street Theatre, 721 Howard Street, Evanston, through April 28th. Performance times vary; check the website at the Theo Ubique. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *