By Ian Rigg
“Words make you think thoughts, music makes you feel a feeling, but a song makes you feel a thought.” – Yip Harburg
This quote at the beginning of the program sets the tone for an intimate, introspective, incredible new revue, I’ve Got the World on a String: Harold Arlen’s Songs of Love and Loss, proudly presented by City Lit Theater Company.
City Lit is a close quarters space situated above a Presbyterian church, and what better place to sanctify the songs of Harold Arlen, whose music was sung by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Ella Fitzgerald?
Comprised of 23 Arlen tunes, the musical has an emotional as well as literal through line, but can also be equally enjoyed as a series of vignettes. Six characters come together late at night in a bar in Manhattan, May in the mid-1940s. They’ve got a song that they sing, and they can make the rain go (anytime they move their finger). Like any night out at the regular bar, the production is merry and morose, melodious and melancholy. The benevolent and mused bartenders Joe (Varris Holmes) and Joan (Jennifer T. Grubb), themselves in love, tend and cater to the ever shifting romances of their four patrons. There’s much woe in this bar, but it’s a wonder to watch.
Ray Toler designed a most excellent set, the intimate setting of the theatre converted into Joe’s Bar before the audience’s eyes. It carries an amazing ambience, furnished with little details like FDR/Truman posters, and the piano organically incorporated into the space. Theatregoers are able to be immersed in this elaborate environment from the moment they enter the space, but the picture isn’t complete until the characters come splashing in, in costume. Thomas K. Kieffer must be commended for his careful composition of period attire. Every attention is paid to the most minute of details, from patterns to tweed textiles to side-tabs on trousers to undercut side-parted hairdos. Style and stagecraft coalesce to create an authentic approximation of a time and place many yearn to visit.
The stage is set, but the microcosm is truly brought to life by the astute actors under the direction of terrific Terry McCabe. Everywhere one looks, there is a cornucopia of character moments: a disdainful stare at a former lover, a doting caress, the playful tug of a towel, dice games, coyly pretending not to notice as their love sings of them.
Standing out in the character field is Holmes as bar-owner Joe. He possesses a tactful, tacit wit and an incredibly rich voice. Holmes carries much of the comedy of the show, singing such playful tunes as “If I Were King Of The Forest” and “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” (delightfully dancing with a mop), and leaving a lot of laughter in his wake.
Of equal joy to watch is Jennifer T. Grubb as his partner in business and life, Joan. Without a doubt running the show as much (if not more) than he, she puts on many hats, switching from skilled server to consulary confidante to delightful dancer to flirtatious partner. Whether their interaction in the moment is meant to be in the spotlight or as a background Easter egg, it’s a pleasure to see their chemistry crackle as they playfully toy with one another across the bar or sneak off for a number or two.
None of the voices in this show would sound out of place on a vintage radio, and they are managed in their terrific timbre and impeccable harmonies by the marvelous music director Kingsley Day (who gets to be in the show himself, as the taciturn pianist in a fetching fedora).
The voices in this show are velveteen and vicacious. Rachel Klippel possesses a great deal of power, but craftily knows when to temper it with tenderness. She gives an utterly beautiful rendition of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” Whether Jameson Wentworth is singing alone or in a sensational duet, he carries a supreme sensitivity and sincerity with his dulcet tones. The music wafts and wanes through the air, lovely and lugubrious, tempting theatregoers to close their eyes and forget or succumb to their own troubles. Then, the music shifts to giddy gladness, and the actors even join in to create percussion with claps, cups, coffee pots and brooms in the most bombastic of numbers.
Further compounding the entertainment are the excellent dance breaks. Brigitte Dittmars’ choreography is crisp, colorful, congenial, contagious. It is executed with particular aplomb by Chris Logan, who dances as slick as looks, and as deftly as he sings. He thrives in this show, the consummate mid-century man, a steely gleam in his eye and a spring in his step, suave exterior betraying a wounded soul beneath. His rendition of “One For My Baby” is simply masterful, and would no doubt be respected by Sinatra himself.
There’s a lot of heartache in Joe’s Bar, but a lot of happiness too, and certainly a lot of drinking. People drink to forget, but they also drink to remember. This musical is not only a toast to Harold Arlen and days gone by, but a tribute to its own deviser, the late, great Sheldon Patinkin. A titan of Chicago theatre for more than six decades, he had every intention of directing this revue before his unfortunate demise. In the vein of his spirit is Harmony France. She is a standout of the show, who sings the titular song twice, and dedicates her performance “to Sheldon.” She looks the part, sounds the part and is the part, reprising “I’ve Got the World on a String” with two phenomenal permutations, changing in mood and even in tense. “I had the world on a string…” For 80 minutes, the audience had the world on a string, too.
City Lit Theater presents the world premiere of “I’ve Got the World on a String: Harold Arlen’s Songs of Love and Loss” through April 10, 1020 W Bryn Mawr, Chicago. Performances are Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 pm. More information and tickets ($29.00 with some discounts available) are available by calling (773) 293-3682 or online here.