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Chicago Stage Style

November 2011 Review by Joe Stead

Cities of Light

Paris is said to have earned its nickname "The City of Lights" as either a glittering symbol of the Age of Enlightenment, or in a more literal manner for the glowing illumination that allows it to sparkle like a finely cut jewel.  Rebecca Joy Fletcher's two-person World Premiere tour of the cabarets that flourished in four European cities during the 1920's and 30's is also entitled "Cities of Light" and shares an equally dual purpose.  For those among us whose knowledge of cabaret is limited to the Kander & Ebb musical, this delightful, less than 90 minute program serves to enlighten and illuminate a forgotten historical era, and in particular the Jewish artists who made up about 80% of the cabaret talent of the period.

Fletcher is not only a playwright and a historian, but also a captivating performer, and her incandescent duet with pianist/performer Allison Hendrix, now in the appropriately intimate and slightly seedy Piven Theatre in Evanston, is frequently beguiling.  In 14 musical numbers written between the late 1920's and the mid 1940's, Fletcher charmingly and ever so slyly channels the spirits of Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, Fanny Brice and Lotte Lenya.  She is a mystical Chanteuse who appears to Hendrix's conservative, literal-minded Jewish scholar/lecturer, taking her and us along for an existential journey to Berlin, Paris, Warsaw and Tel Aviv.

There is a biting and sardonic satire, "A Jew to Blame" set to the music of Bizet's opera "Carmen," as well as a timeless and timely ode to greed, the anti-Capitalist "Life's a Swindle".  There is the plaintively haunting "Just a Little Yearning," the hilarious "Oy, Madagaskar!," the rousing "Varshe! (Warsaw)" and a sweet little lullaby, "Laila, Laila," all crooned in Ms. Fletcher's light but distinctive mezzo.  It is in Ms. Fletcher's facial expressions, however, that the true essence of "Cities of Light" emerges.  Once bubbly, lusty, playfully lascivious and bursting with life, our Chanteuse can also illuminate foreboding at the frightening anti-Semitic demands of the Nazi regime under Chancellor Hitler and his Minister of Terror Goebbels, and the inevitable dance between humor and heartache that are signatures of the Jewish people and their stories.

For her part, the extremely talented Ms. Hendrix proves to be quite ambidextrous, and the two women share a potent (albeit repressed) chemistry and camaraderie together.  Although undoubtedly authentic, "Cities of Light" also incorporates one of my big pet peeves - audience participation - which only causes discomfort for all the spectators.  Seriously, let's allow these two gifted ladies to beguile their audience completely without clumsy and unnecessary "assists" from the paying crowd.  That caveat aside, "Cities of Light" is an entertaining and important piece for anyone looking to broaden their understanding and appreciation of Jewish and musical history.  For more information on this show, please visit the Theatre In Chicago Cities of Light page.

 

About Joe Stead

Joe Stead has enjoyed a lifelong passion for the theatre, which has involved acting, directing, producing, designing and reviewing since 1984.  He served as founder, producer and Artistic Director of Curtain Up Productions in Baltimore, Maryland and Four Star Players in Tampa, Florida.  Favorite productions have included "Life With Father," "Deathtrap," "The Odd Couple," "The Miracle Worker," "Brighton Beach Memoirs," "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown" and "Godspell".  He has also performed leading roles in "Fiddler on the Roof," "Pippin," "The Phantom of the Opera," "The Front Page," and most recently as Hucklebee in "The Fantasticks" for Waukegan Community Players.  Joe holds a degree in Commercial Art from Tampa Technical Institute.  As a critic, he has reviewed everything from Broadway to community theatre and major regional theatres throughout the United States including the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, and the Asolo Theatre in Sarasota, Florida. 

Since 1998, he has been a proud resident of Chicago, the greatest theatre city in America.  He served for two years as Theatre Editor for College News and Central Newspapers.  He created the website Steadstyle Chicago in 2000 to showcase the city's outstanding and diverse theatre scene.  Joe was proud to serve alongside a distinguished panel of theatre professionals as a judge for two seasons of Speaking Ring Theatre's "Vitality" Festival of original short plays.  His most fulfilling role, in addition to reviewer and all-around theatre fanatic, was as director of the 2007 production of Peter Shaffer's "Equus" at Actors Workshop (now Redtwist) Theatre, which was nominated for five Joseph Jefferson Award Citations and won for Best Actor (Peter Oyloe).