By Colin Douglas
Kurt Weill was a talented, young early 20th century German composer known primarily for his theatrical collaborations with Bertolt Brecht. Together they gave the world, among other works, their most famous musical play, the Threepenny Opera.
Other works written during the early 1930’s were The Happy End and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. During this time he met and married (twice, actually, since they’d divorced and reconciled at one time) singer Lotte Lenya. With the spread of Communism and the rise of the Nazi Party, Weill and his wife fled Berlin in 1933, settling for a time in Paris, then London and eventually relocated to New York City.
In his new home, Weill studied the structure of American popular songs and the developing musical comedy format. Instead of writing in the style that characterized his European compositions, Weill played with jazz and tin pan alley influences and partnered with lyricists like Ogden Nash, Langston Hughes, Maxwell Anderson, Ira Gershwin and Alan Jay Lerner. With these talented wordsmiths he created such shows as One Touch of Venus, Lost in the Stars, Lady in the Dark, Knickerbocker Holiday and, the recipient of the first Tony Award for best musical score, Street Scene.
Director Fred Anzevino and his talented musical director Jeremy Ramey have pored the enormous Weill songbook and chosen a nice variety of compositions to represent his entire body of work. They’ve smartly separated their cabaret into two very different, distinct acts.
The first half of the evening features the darker, more Germanic-influenced songs from Weill’s collaboration with Brecht, opening with “Bilbao Song” from The Happy End. It’s followed by two songs from their most famous work, Threepenny Opera, “The Tango Ballad” and “Love Song.” Act one closes with the lengthy cantata, “Mahagonny Songspiel.” Act two provides a more familiar, mainstream American sound and includes, among others, the lovely “Speak Low,” from One Touch of Venus, “Lonely House” taken from Street Scene and closing with an upbeat, jazz-infused “Mack the Knife,” from Threepenny Opera. The contrast between the two Kurt Weills is arresting and speaks to the genius behind this great composer.
Once again, Anzevino has found a coterie of five talented performers to fill out his cast. Kellie Cundiff, a gifted young soprano, with the beauty and talent of a young Laura Benanti, makes “Stay Well,” from Lost in the Stars, quietly soar. The saucy “Saga of Jenny,” from Lady in the Dark, enables Cundiff to share a duet with Chicago favorite, Jill Sesso. Blessed with unbelievably deep tones as well as a dynamic head voice, Sesso entertains with “Trouble Man,” also from Lost in the Stars.
Christopher Logan, a triple threat treat in any production, harmonizes and hoofs his way through numbers like the unfamiliar but intriguing “A Rhyme for Angela,” from The Firebrand of Florence, while pairing with Sesso in “The Tango Ballet” and “Speak Low.” Michael Reyes offers his sultry baritone in many numbers, but he’s especially wonderful with the beautifully haunting “September Song,” from Knickerbocker Holiday. He partners with Christopher and the show’s standout performer, Jordan Phelps, in trios, “The Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria,” from Where Do We Go From Here and “Stranger Myself Here,” from One Touch of Venus. As a soloist, the handsome, musically accomplished Phelps thoroughly enchants with “Lonely House” and “Here I’ll Stay,” from Love Life.
This quintet of song stylists blend well, displaying exquisite harmonies, thanks to Ramey’s brilliant musical direction. The act two musical arrangements are gifts from Ramey, as is his incomparable piano accompaniment. Christie Kerr has provided some simple, effective choreography that looks great and keeps the show festive; and Bill Morey’s costumes, ranging from Threepenny Opera-grunge in act one to his stylishly elegant act two formal wear, are perfect. Adam Veness once again works his magic transforming the No Exit Cafe into a German cabaret theatre.
The power of great music is that it speaks to each individual in different ways and has the ability to generate memories. Weill’s music, even though unfamiliar to many, has that ability, even at first hearing. In Theo Ubique’s polished, professional salute to cabaret theatre, a skill Anzevino and his team never fail to master, pre- and post-WWII Berlin comes alive. The moods inherent in Weill’s nostalgic music quietly prompt emotions to surface as easily as a long forgotten secret.
For lack of a better word…call it September.
“A Kurt Weill Cabaret” is presented through October 19 by Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at the No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available by calling 800-595-4849 or online at www.theo-u.org. Additional reviews by Colin Douglas and information about other Chicagoland productions are found at www.theatreinchicago.com.