While the magnetic tape-recording technology that supported much of the music created between the mid-1960s and early 1980s has long since become obsolete, the songs written during those years live on and remain as revelatory, blistering and exhilarating as ever.
Vivid proof of this can be found in Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre’s production of “8-Track: The Sounds of the ‘70s,” a show ingeniously devised by Rick Seeber and animated by terrific musical arrangements by Michael Gribbin. And while it is parenthetically subtitled “a concert,” it turns out to be a great deal more. And while its score may be classic retro (from R&B and Motown, to pop/rock ranging from the music of such defining names as The Emotions, The Carpenters, The Doobie Brothers and The Bee Gees to Patti LaBelle, Barry Manilow, Helen Reddy, Marvin Gaye and others), the songs are being performed here with great authenticity by artists who came of age decades after the baby boomers and Generation Xers who grew up with them.
In fact, “8-Track” is a formidable work of theater - a multifaceted musical portrait of a turbulent period in American history. And its power-voiced, dance-savvy cast of eight - backed by the vivid direction and choreography of Jamal Howard, and the ever-brilliant musical direction of Jeremy Ramey - set Theo Ubique’s intimate space on fire to the point where you might easily believe you are watching Broadway stars.
The “libretto” of the show is shaped by the song lyrics and the emotionally charged interactions of the cast as it moves through 50 songs (some performed in full, others in fragments) that are organized into eight thematic “tracks” that deal with everything from war and peace (this was the Vietnam War era), to the disco and “partying” life of the time, to the great social changes brought about by the feminist movement and the initial breakdown of many sexual barriers.
Just listen to the way the four leads in the show command the stage. There is Wesly Anthony Clerge singing a rousing “Get Ready,” or holding on to his duffel bag as he captures the anger and disillusionment of a soldier in “War” (and asking “What is it good for?”), or launching into “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” and “YMCA.” And listen to the volcanic voice of Jasmine Lacy Young belt out “I Am Woman” and “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” and then bringing a different energy to “Your Song” and “Shake, Shake, Shake (Your Booty).”
Mia Nevarez is the satin-voiced romantic in the show, leading the cast in “Everything Is Beautiful,” “Until You Come Back to Me” and “You Light Up My Life.” And Patrick O’Keefe is the sensitive young fellow who can drive you to tears singing “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” “I’m Not in Love,” “Midnight Blue” and “Desperado,” but also, on a different note, join forces with Clerge on “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”
And there is much, much more, with every song turned into a scene all its own, and the four terrific members of the “ensemble” - Chamaya Moody (a wonderful dancer), Alli Atkenson (with her flower child bearing), Matt Patrick and Roy Samra - all bringing their particular personalities to the mix and join O’Keefe and the other leads to assert they will be “Stayin’ Alive.”
Jazmin Aurora Medina’s costumes suggest an ideal earthiness in the show’s first act, and then shift into an eye-popping, glitzy, disco-worthy fashion mode for the second half. And Piper Kirchhofer’s lighting subtly reflects the show’s ever-shifting moods.
Perched on the stage just above the action you can see the show’s phenomenal musicians hard at work. Along with Ramey, an incomparable keyboardist, there is drummer Carlos Mendoza, Perry Cowdery on guitar and Egan Franke on bass. I’d dub them Grammy Award material. (Kudos, too, to the invaluable sound designer Stefanie M. Senior, and audio engineers Isaac Mandel and Max Cichon.)
By the end of the show you might well ask: Who needs a jam-packed arena when you can do “The Hustle,” meet “Lady Marmalade” and take a musical (and historical) road trip that’s close up and personal at Theo Ubique (whose name just happens to be Greek for “omnipresent divine gift”).
“8-Track” runs through Jan. 23 at Theo-Ubique’s Howard Street Theatre, 721 Howard St. in Evanston. For tickets, visit theo-u.com or call (773) 939-4101. (You can simply see the show, or you can also order a dinner-theater package catered by the excellent Good To Go Jamaican Cuisine restaurant.)
Note: Upcoming productions at Theo Ubique will include “Once Upon a Mattress” (March 11-May 1) the playful musical inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Princess and the Pea,” and “Godspell” (June 10-July 31), inspired by the Gospel of Matthew.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic