"Cities of Light" Review - A Look at the 1920s and 30s Jewish Cabaret Scene at The Piven Theatre


Do you ever wonder what it would be like to live in Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, or even Tel Aviv in the 1920s and 30s?  Or what the late night cabaret music scene would be like?   Piven Theatre’s Cities of Light provides a glimpse into just this world.  Rebecca Joy Fletcher’s uniquely written cabaret takes audience members on a ride back into Jewish history as they follow the provocative and persistent Chanteuse and her younger counterpart /accompanist,  Jimmi.  Writer Fletcher and Director Marti Lyons take the standard cabaret to a new level, transforming the typical plot-less cabaret into a historically relevant and character driven performance.  For the 80 minutes inside the small and intimate Piven Theatre on opening night, audiences got to transport themselves back several decades to the musical world of Jewry in Europe and Israel, and were able to shed a few laughs along the way.

Rebecca Joy Fletcher in Piven Theatre's "Cities of Light." Photo credit: John Nunu Zomot

Interestingly, when the play began, I thought I might have come to the wrong place!  Jimmi (played by Allison Hendrix), Fletcher’s sidekick and pianist, opened the theatre welcoming audience members to her lecture and as such began discussing Europe in the 1920s, genuinely confusing me and making me second guess what I had signed up to see.  When Chanteuse (Rebecca Joy Fletcher) boldly and rather abruptly appeared begging Jimmi  (AllisonHendrix) to stop lecturing and instead follow her along on the trains, streets, and music halls of Eastern and Western Europe, the fourth wall began to disappear.  I must admit that at the beginning I was bit a disenlightened by the trite pedagogic introduction and Hendrix’s overly exaggerated theatricality upon meeting Chanteuse, a woman of a different time.  Hendrix might have overdone it a bit in expressing her perturbance at Chanteuse’s intervening her “lecture,” but thankfully, once the introduction was over, the ride down memory lane and into the exciting world of Jewish history was a genuine enjoyable adventure.

Rebecca Joy Fletcher in Piven Theatre's "Cities of Light." Photo credit: John Nunu Zomot

As the audience got to experience Berlin, a place submerged in Jewish stereotypes at the brink of World War II, Chanteuse’s songs expressed Jewish desires to reclaim their own story and take control for themselves over those otherwise hurtful stereotypes.  The mockful songs like Life’s a Swindle” and “A Jew to Blame!” were two songs presented, emblematic of that self-deprecation.  When Chanteuse and Jimmi made it to Warsaw, the songs became a bit more provocative and sexy, and Chanteuse even brought a sweet old man from the audience up to join her in her romantic lovey-dovey Yiddish songs.  In Paris, life turned a bit richer and dark, replete with undesirables, prostitutes, and big boulevards.   By the time the duo arrived in Tel Aviv, life was brighter, the beach was near, and cafes were brimming with sun-tanned customers.  Throughout this journey, Fletcher and Hendrix made a perfect pair.  As they travelled along these adventures together, they made the sceneries seem incredibly authentic, even though on stage nothing really changed.  From German sirens to bumpy train rides to stormy days, the two enabled the audience to enter the world of their imagination and join them on their exciting and sometimes frightful journey.

Rebecca Joy Fletcher in Piven Theatre's "Cities of Light." Photo credit: John Nunu Zomot

Furthermore, while most of the cabaret was in English and would likely not have worked well with audiences had it had been in any other language, Fletcher incorporated a sufficient amount of Yiddish, Hebrew, German, and Polish into her pieces.  This added just the right amount of authenticity to the performance. 

The majority of “Cities of Light’s” story on cabaret theatre in the 20s and 30s was told through song.  Thankfully, Fletcher and Hendrix both had strong voices.   Rebecca Joy Fletcher’s voice was operatic, filled with resonance and vibrato, and fitting for the cabarets of the times and places she represented.   In addition to her strong voice, she was incredibly animated and proved she has quite the knack for schtick.  Her rendition of song “Titina” in which she played the characters of pioneering couple Titina and Ephraim, who bicker back and forth, like most married couples do, over the type of life they want to make for themselves inside British Palestine was hilarious.  Fletcher’s good-natured parody of hardworking, laborious Ephraim and his nagging wife Titina provided a fun and light-hearted look at Tel Aviv cabaret.  It also showed off Fletcher’s malleability as an actor and singer.   Similarly, her “Oy, Madagaskar!” 1937 song she sang in Warsaw also brought out her animated and comedic nature.  A song highlighting the desire for the world to rid the Jews by shipping them off to  Madagascar, Chanteuse jovially played an observant Jew caught in the middle of this discussion, and played the Jew complete with the religious payes and black top hat.  These highly comedic, farcical songs were what I would consider to be Fletcher’s strongest suit.

Rebecca Joy Fletcher in Piven Theatre's "Cities of Light." Photo credit: John Nunu Zomot

Overall, I was very impressed by the writing of “Cities of Light.”  The lectures Hendrix gave to the audience seamlessly blended  in with the cabarets and historical scenes that were played onstage.  This historical information gave audience members a chance to contextualize what was going on amidst the cabaret venues, and did so in a creative way, albeit breaking down the fourth wall.  While I was skeptical of this method at first and was sometimes distracted by Hendrix’s dramatic telling as she escaped the present “real” world and became privy to Chanteuse’s adventures, I believe this type of lecture-imaginative world convergence worked for this show. 

In sum, Piven Theatre’s “Cities of Light” provides a very creative look at Jewish history, one presented in a very different way than most plays go, and one presented in a very different way than most cabarets go.  The adventures of Chanteuse and Jimmi through the cabaret scene are entertaining, informative, and imaginative.  In the end, it was hard to believe that on such a bare and minimalist stage, the audience could be so seamlessly transported back to Europe and Israel just after the turn of the century.

Cities of Light (World Premiere) 
Written by Rebecca Joy Fletcher
Directed by Marti Lyons
November 7 - December 11, 2010

More information can be found here http://www.piventheatre.org/current.htm 

Tickets are $15 for preview performances and start at $25 for regular run performances. 
Student, Senior and group rates are available.

Tickets are available at the Box Office, 927 Noyes Street, Evanston, by calling 847.866.8049



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