THE BLOG
06/12/2013 12:25 pm ET | Updated Aug 12, 2013

Theo Ubique's Cole Porter Sparkles; Boho's Kiss Falls Flat

The prolific songwriter Cole Porter may be a dim memory from another century; but, as Theo Ubique shows in its new revue, his songs are both timelessly melodic and remarkably contemporary. While there are references in his famously verbose comic songs which will go right past anyone born after 1940 (Why was "You're cellophane!" considered a compliment?), this has absolutely no impact on anyone's enjoyment. Porter's canon is all about sex masquerading as love, and no period glossary is required to understand that "Let's Do It" is a mating call.

Theo Ubique performs at the No Exit Cafe, and serves dinner and drinks there as well at cabaret tables clustered around the performance space. And when I say "the company serves dinner," I mean that literally, with the actors rushing pell-mell off the stage at intermission to bring your desert and refill your coffee. The casual atmosphere this creates makes every Theo show feel like an evening spent at the home of some remarkably talented friends, a quality exemplified by A Cole Porter Songbook.

Two couples sing their way through Porter's witty, glamorous version of the 1920s, 30s and 40s -- picture The Thin Man set to music -- accompanied by a two-piece band plus music director/arranger Aaron Benham on the piano. Most of the standards are here -- "I Get A Kick Out of You," "Begin the Beguine," "Night and Day" -- but the company also offers some novelty numbers, of which the most charming is Benham's rendition of "Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking." Hats -- in this case, fedoras -- off to anyone who can woo and wow a crowd while having his back turned to it half the time. There are a few too many medleys ("Let's Do It" paired with "Let's Not Talk About Love"; "In the Still of the Night" and "All Through the Night") but they're cleverly arranged, and their use means that the show can present a true sample of Porter's output without being endless.

The singing is fine, and all four company members manage David Heimann's period-perfect choreography with apparent ease. The women sometimes seem to be straining, but responsibility for that rests with the sound design. Three instruments should not be overpowering four singers, but here they often do, and female voices are most susceptible to being drowned out. The men handle the challenge better, and Christopher Logan in particular has a charming Donald O'Connor energy (boyish unassuming meets amazing skill -- oh, hell, see for yourself).

Consider taking in A Cole Porter Songbook for Father's Day. Even if your father grew up on the Rolling Stones, he'll enjoy this skillful introduction to a songwriter whose facility almost conceals the depth of his talent -- and so will you. A Cole Porter Songbook plays through July 21 at the No Exit Cafe, 6970 North Glenwood in Rogers Park.

*****
I've been putting off reviewing Bohemian Theatre Ensemble's production of Kiss of the Spider Woman. BoHo's revelatory co-production of Floyd Collins (with Stage Left) was one of the highlights of last season, and this year's Pygmalion (also with Stage Left) and Hauptmann were both likewise excellent. It's never a pleasure to report that a successor fails to measure up.

But the prison romance of Marxist Valentin and "sex criminal" Molina, which felt so desperate and beautiful in the movie on which the musical is based, here feels faintly risible. Molina's Hollywood-based fantasies of love and sacrifice, which come so thoroughly to life in the movie, seem to be almost self-parody when surrounded by production numbers. When Nathan Carroll as Molina and Evan Tyrone Martin as Valentin enact Molina's favorite movie in which a Russian princess sacrifices herself and dies in the arms of her lover, it's intended to be funny and it is. But the actual sacrifice and actual death which follow can't escape echoes of the ludicrous earlier scene.

It's unclear whether the problem is the show (music and lyrics by Kander and Ebb of Cabaret and Chicago fame, book by Terrence McNally of Lisbon Traviata and Love! Valour! Compassion!) or the production. Carroll and Martin are persuasive individually but only intermittently touching as a couple struggling to survive by leaning on each other. Jennifer T. Grubb as the eponymous Spider Woman is as spooky and seductive as one could ask; and yet I was neither spooked nor seduced by Peter Marston Sullivan's production. Linda Fortunato's choreography, though, is a triumph of motion over [extremely limited] space. Kiss . . . plays through the end of the month at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont in Lakeview.