Evanston's Theo (formerly Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre) didn't originally intend to devote the majority of its 2023-24 season to the late gay composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. But then the company's artistic leadership saw a creative Sondheim offer that they could not refuse.
Now through the end of 2024, the licensing company Music Theatre International is offering theater companies the chance to create their own custom Sondheim Tribute Revue. So if an audience member were to catch Theo's Sondheim Tribute Revue in March, it would be completely different from other theaters producing the show with the same title.
"It's pretty rare in the world of theatrical licensing," said Theo producing director Christopher Pazdernik. "Usually you're stuck licensing a prefabricated revue that has already been on Broadway or off-Broadway."
In Theo's 26-year history, it has produced several revues around Broadway composers like Cole Porter, Kurt Weill and more. They've also had much critical acclaim for their staging of Sondheim shows like Sweeney Todd in 2018 and Passion in 2014, so the chance for Theo to do its own Sondheim Tribute Revue was tantalizing.
"That's right up our alley," said Fred Anzevino, a co-founder and artistic director of Theo. "That's kind of our rootsthe cabaret formatso this felt like the perfect opportunity to do something original."
And in the wake of Sondheim's death at the age of 91 in November 2021, Theo also decided to honor the late songwriter by producing two of his full-length and Tony Award-winning musicals. Now playing is Assassins, which was co-authored with playwright John Weidman off-Broadway in 1990 and on Broadway in 2004. Closing the season is A Little Night Music, which is inspired by Ingmar Bergman's romantic film comedy Smiles of a Summer Night and was co-authored with playwright Hugh Wheeler in 1973.
"Rather than doing two shows that Sondheim had written together, we thought it would be more interesting to pick shows from different parts of his career," Pazdernik said.
Directing Theo's Assassins is Daryl Brooks, who is also the producing managing director of Black Ensemble Theater. The musical shines a disturbing historical spotlight on the many Americans who attempted or were successful at assassinating the President of the United States.
"Look at the political climate now and just how divided the country is," said Brooks, noting how timely Assassins remains no matter what era it is revived. "We have peoplefor political reasons or religious reasonsgoing to shoot up anybody, and anybody can get a gun."
"The show feels prophetic in a way," added Pazdernik. "The epidemic of gun violence has continued and only gotten worse since the show was written."
Like many of Theo's recent productions in the wake of the pandemic shutdown, there has been a conscious effort to be more inclusive with non-traditional casting in terms of race, gender identity and other factors. This is certainly the case with Assassins, featuring Neala Barron (she/her) playing the role of John Wilkes Booth and Liz Bollar (she/they) portraying the Proprietor.
"It's new world and the doors are wide open at Theo," said Anzevino about non-traditional casting.
Anzevino is directing the Sondheim Tribute Revue, and he has already encouraged the five-member cast to propose song solos that might go beyond how and for whom they were originally staged. Anzevino says it's in line with Sondheim's own late-in-life approval of director Marianne Elliott's gender-swapped approach to his Tony Award-winning musical Company (currently on tour in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through Nov. 12).
"We're trying to make it a personal evening of Theo and the Chicago artists community on what their personal stories are to Sondheim, and why they chose their particular solos," said Anzevino about the review.
Anzevino was also proud to announce that Theo had signed L. Walter Stearns and Eugene Dizon to respectively direct and music direct A Little Night Music next year. Both Stearns and Dizon are currently executive producers for Mercury Theater Chicago, but they also have a long history of producing many Sondheim musicals when they were in the leadership of Porchlight Music Theatre from 1998-2011.
In a sense, Anzevino noted, the entirety of Theo's 2023-24 season is a tribute to Sondheim. In addition to the composer's musicals and songs, Anzevino said the company was doing its part to expand the horizons of American musical theater by producing a new work. Theo opened its season with a developmental production of Baked! The Musical. It notably featured an Asian-American cast.
"Sondheim has quite the history here in Chicago, because we have such a sophisticated theater audience," Anzevino said. "As theater artists, (Sondheim's) work has always touched our hearts, and is important to the growth of musical theater history for where we are today."
Theo's 2023-24 season continues at 721 Howard St., Evanston. Assassins runs now through Dec. 17; Theo's custom Sondheim Tribute Revue runs March 8April 28; and A Little Night Music runs May 24-July 14. Single tickets are on sale now, as are three-show season subscriptions. For more information, call 773-939-4101 or visit theo-u.com .