By Barry Reszel
This week’s final competition for this season’s America’s Got Talent included a trip down memory lane for judge Howie Mandel, as he brought finalist Preacher Lawson to LA’s famed Laugh Factory.
“Everybody who was anybody was seen in the clubs,” Mandel reminisced. “From Richard Pryor to Johnny Carson to new up-and-coming people like Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, they would all be on the same stage at the same night and we would hang out at the clubs until two in the morning.
“It was so exciting, so electric. I still get that same flutter in my stomach when I show up at a comedy club…Preacher Lawson is a star. He is lovable. He is energetic. And he sees the funny….” (See the three-minute video here.)
It was particularly poignant to watch this on the heels of a trip to Rogers Park’s No Exit Cafe to see Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre’s opening of its fresh, new production of James Lapine (book) and William Finn‘s (book, music and lyrics) A New Brain.
Because among the area’s many excellent non-Equity houses, Theo Ubique is to Chicagoland musical theatre’s future stars what LA’s Laugh Factory is to up-and-coming comedians: Simply. The. Best.
Led for 13 years by Artistic Director Fred Anzevino, Theo embodies the perfect training ground for (mostly young) musical theatre actors. It’s a relatively simple formula that begins with high-quality productions employing creative use of a small space that give patrons an unforgettable experience of terrific, burgeoning talent.
But there’s something else. The vibe from ever-friendly Anzevino and his über-talented, folksy, Tennessee-bred musical director, Jeremy Ramey make each return trip to Theo feel homecoming-esque. This is a creative community, where tomorrow’s big stage stars serve dinner and pour drinks before pouring out their hearts (along with their crystalline voices) on this small stage and, indeed throughout the room.
And they do so with a smile and a sense of gratitude indicative of their understanding that they are the lucky ones. So it was during pre-show conversation this week with the lovely Holly Atwood, a recent graduate of Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, and new Chicagoan Colin Schreier, each debuting at Theo in A New Brain.
This is all to say Theo Ubique deserves the community’s collective attention and support, starting with an enthusiastic embrace of this, its latest in a long line of musical theatre gems, continuing with a fall benefit (details here) and a 2018 move to its own theatre in south Evanston (details here).
The semi-autobiographical, all-sung New Brain is based on Finn’s own brain tumor misdiagnosis, scary reality (arteriovenous malformation), dangerous surgery and ultimate survival and thriving.
So what’s a composer to do?
Write a musical about it with his longtime writing partner, Lapine.
Funny, melodic, poignant and sometimes sad, the 1998, never-been-to-Broadway, A New Brain, is a jarringly sweet nod to the peculiar cast of characters who make up each person’s existence, influenced by each unique journey.
While a pre-diagnosis to post-surgery synopsis of the show may be read here, this is a piece about the songs and the people who sing them.
Chase Heinemann, a Chicago College of the Performing Arts senior, is Gordon, the finicky composer. His strong acting chops show off strength, humor and vulnerability while his gorgeous voice resonates through Finn’s full, sonorous songbook. Among his vocal highlights is the duet with partner Roger (Colin Schreier), the loveliest song in the show, “I’d Rather Be Sailing.”
Indeed, Schreier takes on more than his share of the production’s vocals, and the two male leads perform multiple duets, trios and ensemble numbers across the 32-song, two-hour production. They are exceptionally well-supported by a strong cadre of triple threats.
Liz Norton is strong as Gordon’s concerned mother, Mimi, with the vocal solo, “The Music Still Plays On,” an absolute highlight. Andy Brown is infectiously funny as children’s TV celebrity Mr. Bungee. Tyler Franklin is truly stunning as Roger’s friend Rhoda. Jeff winner Veronica Garza is hauntingly wonderful as Lisa, the homeless woman, whose Act 1 finale “Change” is dynamic.
Danny Dwayne Wells is both funny and vocally impressive in numerous roles. Tommy Bullington is delightful as hospital “nice nurse” Richard. Kyle Ryan as the Doctor, is a strong actor and powerful singer. And favorite Theo waitress Holly Atwood as hospital nurse Nancy D. (among others) is as gorgeous a singer and actor as she is a kind pre-show server.
Patrons should pay attention to these names as they have such standout Theo alumni Danni Smith, Justin Adair, Collette Todd, Jordan Phelps, Elizabeth Lanza and countless others who went on to star (and support) at numerous venues.
The actors are enveloped by Abigail Reed’s functional scenic design, James Kolditz’s illuminations and Bill Morey’s fun costume design.
While A New Brain is unlikely to top anyone’s “favorite musicals” list, patrons will be hard pressed to find a finer production than Theo’s. Supplemented by Assistant Director Cameron Turner‘s sometimes-zany choreography, this is a simultaneously sensitive and humorous treatment of, literally, life and death.
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents “A New Brain” through October 29 at the No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.