Written by the Brooklyn-based Rebecca Joy Fletcher, "Cities of Light" is a new cabaret-style entertainment paying tribute to the Jewish artists whose work connected the cabarets of Berlin, Paris, Warsaw and Tel Aviv from the late 1920s until their evisceration at the hands of the Nazis and their apologists. If, like me, you are fond of this era and genre, you will appreciate the way Fletcher includes Kurt Weill but also weaves in pieces from such masters of the form as Mischa Spoliansky (who went on to a fine U.K. career as a film composer), Moshe Vilensky (who became one of Israeli's leading composers) and the Krakow-born Mordechai Gebirtig, whose songs fueled the underground Jewish resistance and who was shot by the Nazis in 1942.
"Cities of Light," which opened last week at the Piven Theatre in Evanston, is set up as a lecture on Jewish cabaret delivered by a young academic (played by co-musical director Allison Hendrix) who finds her presentation interrupted by a time-traveling chanteuse (Fletcher). Its premise — that the cabarets in these four cities were mosaics replete with myriad aesthetic styles and moral influences but fundamentally linked by their shared Jewish roots — is both well-demonstrated and potent. But the simple truth here is that the best way Fletcher could pay tribute to these remarkable (and often overlooked) masters is to allow someone else to perform her show.
Fletcher is very spirited and committed, and I suspect "Cities of Light," which is directed by Marti Lyons, was conceived as a vehicle for the author. In a cabaret town like Chicago — where we enjoy a formidable roster of vocal talent — Fletcher's show comes off, alas, as hubristic. Hendrix, who plays piano and who has a far better voice, is barely allowed to sing at all.
These songs — with their delicate blend of irreverence and earnestness, sexual aggression and coyness, assertiveness and pain — are not easy to perform well. Fletcher can certainly vamp with the best of them, but she does not hit every note nor find her way around their formative complexities. As so often happens with the low-level performance of the music of this era, an invasive form of sensuality ends up trumping all. There is little of the necessary darkness or truth. I doubt that's what Fletcher intends, but it was the reality at Piven, which was filled to capacity on Saturday night in testament to the potential of such a project.
If Fletcher could see her way to concentrating on her writing she might further develop this piece, which is much too jumpy and uncertain to truly celebrate these remarkable artists. It needs to chart more clearly and profoundly the diversity and excellence of what was achieved before the artists were summarily stopped and so many of their accomplishments purloined, translated, adapted, stolen and otherwise ripped from their cultural roots. Fletcher is clearly an educator at heart — and this could be a godsend for the preservation of these works and a way for us all, Gentile and Jew alike, to better understand their importance. But that requires Fletcher stepping out of her own spotlight.
When: Through Dec. 11
Where: Piven Theatre, 927 Noyes St., Evanston
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Tickets: $25 at 847-866-8049 or piventheatre.org