Arrangements and music direction: Jeremy Ramey. At: Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave. Tickets: 800-595-4849 or www.theo-u.org; $25-$29. Runs through Oct. 19
Count me among the chorus of critics who feel that the diverse music theater works of Kurt Weill ( 1900-1950 ) deserve more renown and full-scale revivals. But in the meantime, I'm more than happy to welcome Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre's new revue A Kurt Weill Cabaret.
Although this savvy song sampler celebrates the late German-Jewish composer who found fame from Berlin to Broadway, the structure of A Kurt Weill Cabaret overemphasizes the perception that there were two separate Weills.
Act I is focused on Weill's darker, German period via songs co-created with playwright Bertolt Brecht from The Threepenny Opera and Happy End. Weill and Brecht's first collaboration, the Mahagonny Songspeil from 1927 ( a forerunner to their 1930 opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny ), is also performed here in its entirety with the five-member ensemble as menacing lowlifes complete with grimaces and gaunt-faced makeup.
The tone completely changes for Act II. The cast scrubs up to become jazzy lounge lizards in snazzy evening wear to perform songs from Weill's Broadway and Hollywood collaborations with lyricists like Ira Gershwin, Langston Hughes and Alan Jay Lerner. Though there are some sad and contemplative songs, the sudden and cheery American changeover might give some a stylistic whiplash.
This artistic dichotomy could have been explained away in the show with some welcome biographical background. ( Weill was especially wise to flee Germany when Hitler came to power in 1933 and emigrate to America by 1935. ) But director Fred Anzevino and music director/accompanist/arranger Jeremy Ramey just let the songs dramatically speak for themselves, which is a very valid and enjoyable approach, too.
The fine cast consists of Kellie Cundiff, Christopher Logan, Jordan Phelps, Michael Reyes and Jill Sesso, all doing heavy vocal lifting performing Weill's masterful and complex music. Acting-wise, the cast appears more comfortable with U.S. songs like "Lost in the Stars" and "September Song" rather than the German ones railing against bourgeois capitalism.
Some of the interpretive choices are occasionally questionable. Cundiff and Sesso sing the Mahagonny Songspeil's iconic "Alabama Song" ( most famously covered by The Doors ) with so much distressed alarm that it's as if they truly will die if they don't find the next whiskey bar ( alcohol-addled resignation would have been a better approach ).
Also the gorgeous standard "Speak Low" from One Touch of Venus becomes more of a "any jazz melismas you can sing, I can sing better" competition between Logan and Sesso rather an expression of seductive romanticism.
But A Kurt Weill Cabaret is largely an enjoyable and stylish revue through and through, especially in the nautically decorated intimacy of the No Exit Cafe. Hopefully this show will whet audiences' appetites for more full-course helpings of Weill's wonderful works.