By Chris Jones, Tribune theater critic
12:02 PM CST, February 28, 2013
Anyone in show business — anyone with a clue, anyway — who found their way to No Exit Cafe in Rogers Park last fall could not have helped but notice an opportunity to make some money.
Theo Ubique, which has the new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Aspects of Love" beginning March 11, was staging "Smokey Joe's Cafe," a show I first saw years ago under the title "Baby, That's Rock 'n' Roll," and that features the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. These days, it seems as if every composer who picked up a pen gets a revue, but there truly are no other song catalogs like the Leiber and Stoller catalog, which contains a dazzling array of familiar standards from "Kansas City" to "Fools Fall in Love" and "Yakety Yak" to "Jailhouse Rock." Not only were Leiber and Stoller synonymous with rock 'n' roll, they also could write R&B hits. You don't need to give a hoot about musicals to know their work. You can be a regular guy who would not be caught dead listening to Stephen Sondheim. If you're of a certain age, you probably kissed someone to their song stylings. Time has marched on. The audience for wartime hits has mostly fallen away, but the fans of Leiber and Stoller are now hitting their golden years.
Better yet, Leiber and Stoller were both prolific and frequently worked with others. And thus by taking a liberal view of what actually constitutes a Leiber-and-Stoller song, "Smokey Joe" could literally trot out some 40 recognizable hits in a couple of hours, from "Hound Dog" to "Spanish Harlem" and back again. No wonder this show, which has no discernible book whatsoever, played on Broadway for 2,036 performances, after a tryout right here in Chicago.
Theo Ubique is not the only storefront theater in Chicago to produce small, low-budget musicals, but it is the one where you can most trust the quality of the singing and the invention of the staging. And even by Theo Ubique standards, the "Smokey Joe" production was especially impressive. Mostly fresh from school — which is where the core demographic for this show dreams of returning — the attractive cast was young and non-Equity. And the director, Brenda Didier, had worked up quite a lather with all these sexy songs.
So it was no great surprise that Gitta K. Jacobs and Jim Jensen scooped this one up for the Royal George Theatre Cabaret. Both Jacobs and Jensen are veteran producers with mainstream tastes. Jacobs was behind a variety of commercial productions in the 1980s and 1990s in Chicago; Jensen used to run the very theater that the show will rent, beginning Thursday. You can't beat the popularity of the title, the quality of the production is solid indeed and, given the local, non-Equity cast, you also can't beat the cost structure. They'd kill for that pay scale in New York, where the actors union would not allow a non-Equity show to play an important for-profit venue. But in Chicago, there is more flexibility.
"Smokey Joe" should dispense much pleasure in the George, and it certainly will provide gainful employment for some young Chicago actors. This will be the first Theo Ubique production to make a commercial transfer; there have been many other candidates.
Slowly but surely, it seems, the commercial theater business in Chicago is coming back to life. The other transfer from a relatively small theater is "To Master the Art," the 2010 play about Julia and Paul Child that was penned by William Brown and Doug Frew and first seen at the TimeLine Theatre in Chicago. The Chicago Commercial Collective, the commercial producers of a new production beginning in September, has struck a deal not just to rent Broadway in Chicago's Broadway Playhouse but to land a spot on Broadway in Chicago's coveted subscription season.
This isn't the first time Broadway in Chicago has sold a local show to its subscribers; it did the same with the House Theatre hit "The Sparrow." Still, it will be interesting to see how those audiences react to what was, in 2010, a modestly scaled off-Loop production, albeit an Equity show, which is more than you can say for some of the other recent fare at the Broadway Playhouse.
I think the play will need a lot of improvement from 2010 — a gauzy hagiography does not a drama make, nor is that soft focus true to Child's unstinting self — but there's no forgetting the simply dazzling performance from Karen Janes Woditsch as the famous icon of domesticated French cooking, not the sheer fun of a play in which people are cooking in the style of Le Cordon Bleu right before your eyes and nose. In 2010, Meryl Streep's film performance was very much in the mind's eye. That has receded now, which should only help a show that will be a grand experiment in all kinds of tasty ways.
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