Ever since it moved to The No Exit Cafe in 2004, Theo Ubique’s house style has been inextricable from the charmingly cramped, bohemian confines of its Rogers Park home: major musicals masterfully done on a miniature scale. Their shows have been packed to the brim with young, up-and-coming musical actors performing for audiences packed to the brim as well. Seated cabaret-style around a matchbox-sized stage, one had to watch one’s elbows carefully lest they poke out a fellow patron’s eyeballs. If the shows had been of a lesser quality, this issue might have proved insurmountable. But they weren’t, so it didn’t. Instead, the crowded conditions merely registered as … intimate.
‘The Full Monty’ ★★ When: Through Jan. 27, 2019 Where: Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, 721 Howard St., Evanston Tickets: $39–$44 Info: www.theo-u.com Run time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission
So while it was wonderful to hear the company announce it was moving to a new facility on the Evanston side of Howard Street, the news also carried with it some sense of trepidation. Theo Ubique was going to maintain its cabaret-style seating, of course (and only in Chicago could a theater move to a “bigger space” that still only seats 85 patrons). But how was the company going to fare in a more traditional black box, one where the actors would be simultaneously onstage and practically on top of you? You can take Theo Ubique out of The No Exit Cafe, but is it really such a good idea to take The No Exit Cafe out of Theo Ubique?
Having seen the company’s first offering in the new space — a revival of David Yazbek’s 2000 musical “The Full Monty” (based on the 1997 British film) — I can report that the results are a mixed bag. I won’t go so far as to say that something has been entirely lost in the move. Maybe it just hasn’t been unpacked yet. But there’s a fuzziness, a lack of focus to this production from Theo Ubique founder and artistic director Fred Anzevino that feels just as inextricable from the company’s new digs as its best work was from its old one. It’s nice to see Theo Ubique level-up to a proper theater, but now they’ll have to learn how to fill it. Bigger is not always better, especially when the actors are sans microphones and getting overpowered by the band.
It doesn’t help that “The Full Monty” is an uneven show to begin with. Despite a pretty great set of tunes and lyrics from Yazbek (whose newest show, “Tootsie,” recently stopped in town on its way to New York) “The Full Monty” has not aged well. Which is odd, actually, because its premise feels as “of the moment” as it can get: A group of emasculated, out-of-work steel workers in Buffalo, NY, decide to make some much-needed cash and reclaim some even-more-needed masculine agency by performing an amateur striptease act. Their gimmick? These work-a-day guys are going to go “full monty” — full nudity.
It’s actually in the show’s favor that it was written back in 2000. If this this same story were being told post-2016, it would either be impossible, or at a minimum, completely insufferable. Instead, “The Full Monty” is merely retrograde. To wit, while most of the jokes in this production fall flat anyway, there is also a song called “Big Black Man,” which the show’s creators, including Yazbek and playwright Terrence McNally, should really consider revisiting for future productions. It’s viscerally unfunny, just like the show’s Neolithic cracks about gay panic and tired gender stereotypes.
Anzevino’s wan, fidgety staging does his cast very few favors. They’re a likeable lot, even if they’ve been cast adrift. Despite some fine performances, especially Joe Giovannetti and Neil Stratman as two of the strippers, and Kate Harris as their chain-smoking accompanist, it’s not until the raucous finale that “The Full Monty” springs to life. While the rest of the show left me fretting about Theo Ubique’s past, that’s the number that made me excited for their future.
Alex Huntsberger is a local freelance writer.