By Patrick O’Brien
Despite his unexpected death in 2012, Marvin Hamlisch is still as industrious as ever, with two new musicals in the works (one of them, Gotta Dance, set for Chicago this winter). And anyone who questions that seeming contradiction need only head to Theo Ubique’s new revue of the man’s music to confirm his immortality.
Often referred to as a musical chameleon, the man was more a musical chimera; his abiding love of pop music and film and Broadway simply could not be contained by his Juilliard education, and vice versa. All his songs are marvelous constructions: strong hooks, muscular, intricate, slyly humorous, and above all, unashamedly heartfelt.
And freed from the expected confines of the composer retrospective (“And then he wrote…” and all that jazz), an equally extraordinary talent in Aaron Benham arranged nearly 30 songs and scores into two hours. Each moment lands exactly where it should, from exuberance to torchy longing and everything in between, also in no small part due to Hamlisch’s many lyrical collaborators, ably represented here, from (Howard) Ashman to (David) Zippel.
Benham’s savvy – as arranger and music director – cannot be overstated, which is most discernible late in the second act, when he at long last pulls out the big guns for the elephants in the room: Hamlisch’s biggest hits, “The Way We Were” and “What I Did for Love.” The results – a blending of male and female trios – are stirring, simply put.
(He especially gets to show off his fingers in an entr’acte that laces Scott Joplin ragtime between Hamlisch’s snap-crackle-‘n’-pop pop.)
Director Courtney Crouse takes Benham’s arrangements and brings them to fully-realized life in the intimate industrial-deco space (by Adam Veness, lights by Maya Fein). So intimate, that during callbacks to A Chorus Line, one almost fears that someone in the front seats may get kicked in the face. But Christopher Logan’s dances are one with the music: energetic and sensitive.
Even in an ensemble show (The Marvin Hamlisch Songbook certainly is that), stand-outs do occur, and the other revelation of the night belongs to Sarah Wasserman in her musical theater debut with a couple years of classical repertoire under her belt. With such a disciplined background, her singing is marvelous and colorful, but she also reveals a knack for frazzled comedy in “A Beat Behind,” as well as moves in “At the Ballet.” But her shining moment is “That’s How I Say Goodbye,” a paean to heartbreaking regret that patrons regret its end.
Not to detract from the stellar work all around, however. Like A Chorus Line, everyone gets their moments to shine. (But this time, they get to stick around, all the better for the audience.) Caleb Baze brings a fresh-faced charming tenor, especially to “If You Remember Me.” Patrick Byrnes, a hamboning ham with heart, easily showcases Hamlisch’s sense of humor (especially with “Improvised Love Song”), as well as perhaps a hint of insecurity to “If You Really Knew Me.” Garrett Lutz is an especially expressive performer, his eyes and scruffy brow radiating doubt in “How Can I Win?”
(This particular subtle throughline is not accidental, and only speaks to Benham and Crouse’s conception. Having achieved phenomenal success barely out of his thirties, Hamlisch had a lot of time for self-reflection.)
Sarah Larson scores with “Rita’s Tune,” as chanteuse-y as a song can get, as well as cabaret favorite “Disneyland,” both alluring and sympathetic. And Stephanie Hanson – when not threatening to kick your face – threatens to tear down the roof with “Travelin’ Life.”
Be they old standards or obscurities, happy or sad, funny or touching, invention is the name of the game right now at Theo Ubique, among both the living and the immortal, and it’s all simply singularly sensational. And all very likely to keep Marvin busy for many more years.
“A Marvin Hamlisch Songbook” runs through July 12 at the No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave. Performances are on Thursdays at 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; and Sundays at 7 pm (no show Sunday, June 28). Tickets ($29 Thursdays and Sundays; $34 Fridays and Saturdays) are available via the box office online here or by phone at (800) 595-4849. There are also student/senior discounts ($24 Thursdays and Sundays; $29 Fridays and Saturdays). Dinner is available for an additional $25 with prior reservations.