Director Fred Anzevino has orchestrated another dazzling little jewel of a show at the intimate, unassuming No Exit Cafe on Chicago's far north side. Like "Cabaret," Theo Obique's last offering, here is another stunning production that once again demonstrates the old adage, "less is more."
This thought-provoking new cabaret-style musical is created from the canon of material composed by the late Belgian-French singer Jacques Brel and is sensitively translated into English and thoughtfully arranged into a unified work by university professor, author, playwright and actor Arnold Johnston. Each song can certainly stand alone, but when they're performed one after another they seem to meld into a small-scale pop opera.
In a run-down Dutch waterfront tavern, the personalities of and relationships between a bartender, a prostitute and two sailors emerge through the lyrics and melodies and continually evolve during an evening of drunken revelry. Using this dramatic framework Anzevino, Johnston and musical director Joshua Stephen Kartes (who also brilliantly accompanies with his rich piano arrangements) have skillfully fashioned the songs into a series of musical soliloquies and dialogues filled with bitterness, loneliness, longing and often a degree of humor.
Each of the four talented performers brings something special to a show brimming with musical and dramatic artistry and featuring expert timing, subtle dramatic nuance and, I might add, precise diction. The delicate harmonies demonstrated in "The Vixens," the joy felt in "What Have We Made, My Friends," the powerful emotional connection found in "Don't Leave Me" and the ensemble strength in "Amsterdam" are just a few of the special moments in this piece.
Jeff-nominated actor Jeremy Trager is brilliant as the barkeep, especially in his tour-de-force number, "The Song of Jacky." As the Whore, Jenny Lamb has the MGM look of an Ingrid Bergman or a Marlene Dietrich and is lovely in "I Don't Know Why?" Chris Damiano's commanding, strong baritone voice stands out in every number, particularly in his duet, "Jef," and his talent with a guitar provides a delicate accompaniment to the charismatic Eric Martin's haunting "My Childhood."
Simply but effectively staged, lit and costumed, this well-acted and emotionally touching musical feast is everything you could ask for on a hot summer evening. Add to this a selection of soft drinks, coffees (or you may bring your own alcoholic beverages), dinner and dessert all served by the cast and you have a full evening's entertainment. From the swelling piano overture to the show's jazzy title song that bookends the piece, you're likely to become a fan of both Jacques Brel and this wonderful theater company, which was deservedly awarded the title of The Spirit of Rogers Park.