Lively Tribute to Stephen Sondheim at Theo Ubique

Photo credit Elizabeth Stenholt Photography - Maxwell J DeTogne leads the company of Sondheim Tribute Revue
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By Fran Zell

Back when Stephen Sondheim turned 70, he reflected in a lengthy New York Times interview about what it meant to him to see the New York premiere of Saturday Night 45 years after he wrote it.

“I don’t have any emotional reaction to Saturday Night at all— except fondness,”  Sondheim said then. “It’s not bad stuff for a 23 year old.”

Photo Credit Elizabeth Stenholt Photography – Front to Back, Maxwel J DeTogne & Joe Giovannetti, Maliha Sayed, Elya Faye Bottiger & Ismael GarciaPhoto Credit Elizabeth Stenholt Photography – Front to Back, Maxwel J DeTogne & Joe Giovannetti, Maliha Sayed, Elya Faye Bottiger & Ismael Garcia

I can’t help but wonder if he might have had a similar reaction to the cabaret tribute to him now playing through April 28 at Theo Ubique in Evanston. Sondheim, who died in 2021 at age 91, was widely acknowledged as the most important, influential, and innovative composer-lyricist in modern Broadway history. Among his many gifts was the ability to combine words and music in a way that heightened them both. 

Sondheim Tribute Revue is a good, solid show–a Sondheim sampler if you will: more than 30 songs from 15 musicals performed by a talented and enthusiastic five-member ensemble. Their performances, along with slick choreography, costumes and lighting, create a magical cabaret, far  removed from the tedium and stress of the outside world. 

Photo credit Elizabeth Stenholt Photography – Joe Giovannetti

Emotional richness comes through in some of the songs. One of my favorites was “The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened” from Road Show (2008), performed by Joe Giovannetti and Maxwell Detogne.  Both are veterans of the Theo Ubique stage and Jeff nominated actors:  Giovannetti for supporting actor in Most Happy Fella  (2017) and DeTogne for Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar (2015).  DeTogne has the most powerful voice and stage presence of the ensemble, and is a special pleasure to listen to and watch. Giovannetti has a lovely tenor voice too that frequently reveals an emotional vulnerability that serves well in Sondheim Tribute Review.

Photo credit Elizabeth Stenholt Photography – Company of Sondheim Tribute Revue Opening Number

Their “Best Thing” performance doesn’t give the audience a hint of the betrayal to come in their relationship, just as most of the songs in the show are performed out of their emotional, context. 

Each member of the company takes a turn speaking about what Sondheim means to them. When it’s her turn, music director and pianist Carolyn Brady tells the audience that the revue offers people a chance to find new meaning in Sondheim’s lyrics.  

I’m not sure if that is possible. Understanding Sondheim is all about feeling the emotions of the show and the story.  It’s never sentimental or frothy, of course. He was recently described in Musicals Magazine as “the musical poet of emotional complexity, brimming with ambivalence and ambiguity.” He also brilliantly evoked dark emotions, sometimes as dark as the fiercest darkness that seems to color our current times.

It is disappointing that the revue doesn’t include some of Sondheim’s darkness. “Pretty Women” from Sweeney Todd was performed without a hint of the underlying madness and murderous intentions that informed it in the show.  Only a few bars of “No One Is Alone,” from Into the Woods were song, thus eliminating its sad wisdom.

Take Me to The World:  A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration, is the most wonderful tribute to Sondheim I’ve seen, presented by an esteemed cast of celebrities who had appeared in his shows and knew him personally.  It was streamed online in April, 2020 towards the beginning of the Covid lock down. It’s still up on YouTube and I hope they never take it down.

hoto credit Elizabeth Stenholt Photography – The Company of Sondheim Tribute Revue. L to R – Joe Giovannetti, Maxwell J DeTogne, Maliha Sayed, Ismael Garcia & Elya Faye Bottiger

Each performer prefaced their song with remarks about what Sondheim’s work meant to them.

“It’s no secret that I cut my teeth on Rodgers and Hammerstein when it comes to singing,” said Kelli O’Hara one of Broadway’s greatest leading ladies and famous for playing Anna in The King and I. “But what I really learned from you (Sondheim),” she said “ is what it meant to communicate through a song….You gave us the words for our feelings.”

She then sang an incredibly soul-charged interpretation  of “What More Do I Need” from Saturday Night.  I hope it caused Sondheim to rethink his too-humble take on his 23 year-old talents. 

The sort of passion that can uncover truth isn’t pervasive in Theo Ubique’s Sondheim Tribute Revue, and we sorely need truth these days. That said, Ismael Garcia deserves a shout out for their compelling performance of “No One Has Ever Loved Me” from Passion. Immediately before singing it, Garcia spoke candidly about their personal journey as a gender non-conforming person and how Sondheim’s messages about love has helped carry them forward on that journey.

Other members of the ensemble include soprano Maliha Sayed, and mezzo soprano Elya Faye  Bottiger, both making their Theo debut. They are promising young artists who have worked with theaters throughout Chicago.

Photo credit Elizabeth Stenholt Photography – Maxwell J DeTogne & Joe Giovannetti

Sondheim Tribute Review, directed by Fred Anzevino continues Thursdays through Sundays through April 28 at Theo Ubique, 721 Howard Street in Evanston.  The production team includes J Alan & Jenna Schoppe co-choreographers/associate directors; Carolyn Brady, music director; and Evelyn Ryan, assistant music director.  The cast includes Elya Faye Bottiger, Maxwell Detogne, Ismael Garcia, Joe Giovanntti, and Maliha Sayed.  Tickets are $54 for table seating and $49 for general admission, with a $5 discount for seniors.  A 3-course prix fixe dinner is available with at least one-week advance reservation for an additional $33 per person.  Food service begins 90 minutes before showtime. Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 773-939-4101.


  • Fran Zell

    Fran Zell is a freelance journalist, based in Chicago. She is a former staff writer for the Chicago Tribune. She also writes plays, short stories, and essays.

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About Fran Zell 12 Articles
Fran Zell is a freelance journalist, based in Chicago. She is a former staff writer for the Chicago Tribune. She also writes plays, short stories, and essays.

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