If I were to say this was a review of a Jule Styne revue at a shoebox-sized cabaret space in Rogers Park, you might well be picturing a little clutch of cute, smiling, cruise ship-like performers, perched on barstools and chirpily warbling the likes of "Three Coins in the Fountain," "Just in Time" and "I've Heard That Song Before" as if this were the last lounge in the last Holiday Inn at the end of world. Well, I don't want to rain on your parade on anything, but if that's the mental picture, you've never been to the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, an artistic enterprise that, at this particular Chicago moment, is red hot.
A few days after mopping up most of the non-Equity Jeff Awards with its production of "The Light in the Piazza" (still playing in rotating repertory although entirely sold out), Theo Ubique is following that impossible act to follow with another truly stellar show, a moving, strikingly expansive and thoroughly theatrical new revue titled "Time After Time: The Songs of Jule Styne."
Certainly, this is a simpler endeavor, needing just a cast of five and a single piano (one of my very few criticisms is that the show ideally needed a combo). But the most remarkable thing about this new show — a beautifully conceived piece from director David Heimann and musical director Aaron Benham — is the level of emotional stakes that this cast achieves. There is something uncommonly intense about the way such Styne classics as "Time After Time" or "There's Nothing Rougher Than Love" are communicated here, something that hones in on this prolific composer's musical sense of both the force of human personality and the fragility of the human heart.
The light but strikingly resonant conceit here is that the performers — the cast is made up of the uniformly excellent Danielle Brothers, Stephanie Herman, Christopher Logan, Khaki Pixley and Andrew Sickel — are all playing characters to be found in Grand Central Station, circa the 1940s and 1950s. That setting proves ideal for this material — so many of Styne's greatest songs feature characters in motion ("I Don't Want to Walk Without You, Baby,") or somehow negotiating their relationship with the rest of the world. Think about a Bob Merrill lyric like "people who need people are the luckiest people in the world" and ponder how the singer, or you, really feel about all that. You will ponder it when you hear it here.
As staged by Heimann, the actors wander through the station, dreaming of the only girl they need, or seeking, or unloading, a lover. At one point, a glam but fraught Herman shows up bedecked in diamonds, as if stumbling into the concourse from someone's bedroom on 42nd Street, newly aware that a gal's only reliable pals are her rocks. At some points, the fine musical arranger Benham has put together songs you would not expect (such as the way "I'll Walk Alone" from "For the Boys" melts into "Saturday Night is the Loneliest Night of the Week") but that make perfect sense as a medley.
Mostly, the songs are arranged thematically. At one point in the first act, a traveller delights in the possibility of "When You Meet a Man in Chicago," just a train ride away, only for the show to end up lamenting "Talking to Yourself." There is no mawkish narration nor cloying linkages; just gorgeous, simple explorations of the human condition, as composed by one of the greatest.
The cast reflects the diversity of mood in the piece. Brothers is especially raw here, and there are a couple of formidably talented youngsters on display in Logan and Sickel; Logan has a fine spirit and sense of physical optimism to match his pipes (his take on "All I Need is the Girl" comes with delicious vocal slides); Sickel, who is truly just a kid, has a gorgeous, honest voice.
The finale, aptly enough, is bittersweet. "I've just been told the curtain's coming down," Brothers sings, sounding exactly like a woman who knows she has missed her train.
When: Through July 29
Where: Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $29-$34 at 773-347-1109 or theoubique.org
6970 N. Glenwood Ave.