By Barry Reszel
This reviewer has a grown-up Christmas wish for the talented cast of the infectious 8-Track: The Sounds of the ’70s, now playing Evanston’s Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre: May you be treated to at least one partying audience during your run that cumulatively forgets it’s watching a stage show, gets up and does the Hustle; Shakes, Shakes, Shakes its booty; and bobs along, singing off key while pantomiming, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.”
That’s what you, as a cast, make audience members really want to do. Congratulations and thank you!
This upbeat gem of the very definition of “jukebox musical”—hell, call it jukebox opera because there’s no dialogue—further exemplifies the musical theatre magic of Theo Ubique. Led for many years now by ebullient artistic director Fred Anzevino and fabulous music director Jeremy Ramey, they’re now joined by the best friend of everyone connected with Chicagoland theatre, Christopher Pazdernik, as the company’s managing and casting director. Whatever their secret is to helming this favorite non-Equity company, they attract the top (typically young) talent in town and give them a supportive stage on which to shine.
And shine they do. These talented eight folks, led by four amazing young voices who are destined to be seen on Chicagoland’s stages for many years to come, backed by Ramey and his three wonderful bandmates, take patrons for a strut and swoon down memory lane. The score illustrates the diverse musical range of this decade—soft pop/rock to R&B, Motown to disco. It’s all wrapped into eight different tracks (scenes) and cast characterizations that remind audiences, rather than truly tell a story, of the final years of the Vietnam War, early days of the LGBTQ rights movement, rise of feminism and legendary party scene that was disco.
Conceived by Rick Seeber, who’s also responsible for Beehive: The 60s Musical, 8-Track music includes hits from The Emotions, The Carpenters, LaBelle, Barry Manilow, The Doobie Brothers, The Bee Gees, Helen Reddy and many others. Director/Choreographer Jamal Howard says 8 Track “celebrates, not satirizes” the decade. No doubt anyone who lived through the time will be enthralled with this production that includes some truly clever, fun choreography (this reviewer particularly appreciated the seated staging of “One Toke Over the Line” followed by “Car Wash.”) Howard says he’s convinced the show resonates as much for audiences who weren’t around then.
It’s not entirely clear why the distinct characters and all the solos are given to four leads in this loose concept that could allow for more sharing of the wealth. But have no doubt, this quartet of Theo Ubique newcomers is simply stupendous. Wesly Anthony Clergé is a classically trained baritone glad to be “Takin’ It to the Streets” and kills on a soulful version of James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.” Multi-credited Patrick O’Keefe does a gut-wrenching “Desperado.” With a seemingly limitless vocal range, Jasmine Lacy Young enthralls—highlights include Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” and Elton John’s “Your Song.” And reminiscent of SIX star Samantha Pauly’s early career days in Chicago, 2020 Northwestern grad Mia Nevarez, who is already lighting up numerous Chicagoland venues, belts and croons with the best; this reviewer’s notes for the song, “Come Back to Me,” simply say, “Holy cow, MIA!”
The four leads are joined by four terrific dancers and harmonizers—Alli Atkenson (nod to her terrific flower girl characterization she keeps throughout), Chamaya Moody, Matt Patrick and Roy Samra. Backstage, Scenic Designer Mara Ishihara Zinky creates a funky “Dating Game”-reminiscence that’s complemented by Jazmin Aurora Medina’s mod costumes.
So here’s the bottom line—This reviewer has “Feelings.” “I Will Survive” but worry about “Stayin’ Alive.” Contemplating “War,” “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and disobeying when “Mama Told Me Not to Come” brings a touch of “Midnight Blue.” Perhaps the best cure is “Takin’ It to the Streets” with a ride on the “Peace Train,” where “The Morning After” I’ll be reminded of “The First Time Ever I saw Your Face” and that I love you “Just the Way You Are.” Because, after all, “We Are Family” and “You Light Up My Life” so “Get Ready” for the “Best of my Love” and returning to a feeling where “Everything is Beautiful.”
8-Track: The Sounds of the ’70s runs through January 23 at 721 Howard Street, Evanston. For tickets or more information, please call 773-939-4101 or visit theo-u.com.
Photos by Liz Lauren.