Lyrics by Don Black and Charles Hart
Directed by Fred Anzevino
Musical Direction by Jeremy Ramey
Choreography by James Beaudry
Presented by Theo Ubique Cabaret Theater at No Exit Café
For all the contrivances of Lloyd Weber’s operetta, nothing can hamper this dynamite cast of talented vocalists.
When in the spring of 1990 director Trevor Nun originally brought Aspects of Love to Broadway from its native West End, its composer Andrew Lloyd Webber was at the zenith of his commercial success. With such lush blockbusters as Evita, Cats and Phantom of the Opera under his belt— and advance ticket sales for Aspects reaching a staggering sum of $12 million—Webber’s stock was high. But like all market bubbles, the run was too good to last. Facing poor reviews, immense production costs and disinterested audiences, Aspects of Love went on to lose all of its original $8 million investment, going down in history as one of the greatest commercial flops Broadway had ever seen.
Theo Ubique’s recent staging of Aspects of Love thankfully avoids the demonstrable mistake of over-producing Webber’s most “high-minded” operetta. With little more than a piano, a violin and an assortment of woodwinds in the orchestra pit, director Fred Anzevino and musical director Jeremy Ramey are eager to let this immensely talented cast of musical performers show us what cynical audiences had long thought impossible in a Lloyd Webber show—namely, nuance of character and complexity of theme. Stripped to its bare narrative bones, this is Aspects of Love in close-up. Yet while it is clear that Theo Ubique’s cast and crew are up for the challenge, one cannot help but feel that Aspects of Love itself is not.
Based on the eponymous 1955 novella by the eccentrically colorful David Garnett—best known as a member of the infamous Bloomsbury Group—Aspects of Love spans over the course of two and a half hours a whopping period of seventeen years. Recounting the love affair between a young British soldier, Alex Dillingham (Matthew Keffer), and a notorious French actress, Rose Vibert (Kelli Harrington), Aspects of Love has all the salacious bed-hopping of a Restoration comedy with significantly less humor. Rose eventually finds herself taken up by Alex’s much older Uncle George (Sean Thomas) whom she marries and has a daughter, Jenny (Rochelle Therrien). Jenny in turn falls in love with her cousin, Alex, who in truth is carrying out an affair with an Italian bird, Giulietta (Colette Todd).
Yet for all the rampant instances of adultery, incest and even the occasional sapphic subtext, Aspects of Love feels stilted and cloyingly preening. A story of Europe’s idle elite—bouncing indolently from love affair to love affair, traipsing between Parisian theaters and Italian villas, sipping brandy from snifters—Aspects of Love has all the sentimentality of a Puccini-esque operetta without the grandness of scale. Indeed, these are not individuals who benefit well from Theo Ubique’s otherwise masterfully intimate production, for in showing us such characters in close relief, we see more clearly than before how absurdly bourgeois they are. Little more than the romantic self-projections of an haut monde, Aspects of Love may register with those who still refer to loved ones as “darling” (in their best Deborah Kerr) or those who find respite from the dramedies of love by retreating to their country estate. But to my mind such characters are too removed from everyday reality to strike anyone as believable and might in fact benefit from being held in a dimmer, more distant light.
Still, for all this mawkish feeling, one cannot help but extend a remarkable commendation to Theo Ubique’s cast and crew who come as close to saving Aspects of Love from itself as one might hope for. Matthew Keffer as the young Alex delivers a sublimely exquisite vocal performance, at once meticulously controlled yet richly expressive. And Kelli Harrington as the actress Rose is downright opulent, as graceful as an Old Hollywood starlet in her beautifully well-tuned phrasings. Jeremy Ramey’s musical direction somehow manages to be pared down to size without sacrificing any of the show’s admittedly luscious orchestrations, and Fred Anzevino’s direction effectively capitalizes on No Exit Café’s moody interior to bring us a fluidly dream-like musical experience. Even choreography by assistant director James Beaudry makes remarkably strategic use of its space, fitting a considerable range of movement in otherwise confined quarters.
This may then be one of those rare occasions when production value actually outweighs the triviality of the material. Thus Theo Ubique’s Aspects of Love might be best enjoyed as a loosely structured cabaret performance or as a showcase for some extraordinary Chicago talent. As a treatise on the varied nature of love, it suffers. Therefore, a word of advise: keep its “high-minded” pretenses at bay. But for the love of god, go for the music…
Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Monday, March 11th, 2013.
Running time is approximately 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission.
Aspects of Love runs until April 21st, 2013. No Exit Café is located at 6970 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago, IL 60626