Cerebral “Cities” at Home at Piven Theatre Workshop

It’s not unusual for intellectual recitations to flow from the bowels of old Evanston buildings.

That’s why Piven Theatre Workshop’s current premiere staging of Rebecca Joy Fletcher’s “Cities of Light” fits right in at the Noyes Cultural Center in Northwestern University’s shadow.

Make no mistake, this is no “Mary Poppins,” but then again, it doesn’t pretend to be.

This is a Ph.D. dissertation defense set to music.

Fletcher shares the stage with Allison Hendrix in the 80-minute exhibition recalling “the forgotten Jewish voice” of 1920s and ‘30s cabaret singers in Berlin, Warsaw, Paris and Tel Aviv.

Simple red draperies, an upright piano and a lone chair set the stage for these talented women. Hendrix portrays a professor speaking on the important role of Jewish singers in four Eastern European cities just before and during the rise of Nazi power. Fletcher leaps from and embodies the lecture notes as a mysterious diva who takes a theatrical journey with her accompanist through the pre-war cabarets.

While Brooklyn, New York’s Fletcher is billed as both author and chanteuse, and Hendrix as pianist and co-musical director, it’s Hendrix’s believable characterization and lovely singing (along with her impeccable piano playing) that save this performance from being a monotonous one-woman platform of personal passion.

Indeed, Hendrix breathes life into Fletcher’s painstakingly researched script, begun 12 years ago after happening upon a 10-disc collection of archived German cabaret recordings. “I had the stunning, sudden sensation that I knew these long-ago performers—that I was one of them,” Fletcher says.

That might be. And it’s that kind of passion that makes for great research, though not necessarily for enjoyable musical theatre.

Fletcher says “Cities of Light” evolved from a cabaret show to its current dramatic realization from her admittedly selfish desire as a writer to explore the relationships between the characters. But to at least one observer, the development is not yet complete.

An 80-minute production featuring 14 songs is ambitious in its own right. Many of the songs are performed in languages other than English (German, Yiddish, French), and none are tunes patrons will be humming on the car ride home.

That leaves opportunity for edits. Additional dialogue in the place of songs shortened or cut all together could ultimately allow Fletcher’s desired character development to flourish.

Still, the current iteration of this determined look at history has its place for those seeking an intellectual exercise with a soundtrack. And for that, it’s being staged in the right place.

“Cities of Light” will be performed through December 11 at Piven Theatre Workshop in the Noyes Cultural Center, 927 Noyes St., Evanston. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 and are available by calling 847-866-8049 or online at piventheatre.org.

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