SWEET AND HOT: THE SONGS OF HAROLD ARLEN, Prologue Theatre Productions, at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago, Woolman Hall. This revue of 33 Harold Arlen tunes (written in collaboration with such lyricists as Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, "Yip" Harburg, and Truman Capote) proves that, though he enjoys a less exalted reputation than his friend George Gershwin, Arlen was a masterful composer whose tricky melodies and complex harmonies require singers with firm techniques and sensitive ears as well as emotional depth and a sense of jazz style. The three men and three women in this production fall short on all counts; young and earnest, they simply aren't up to the challenging material.
Given the performers' limitations, director James M. Schneider should have kept the production simple and focused on clear, honest characterizations and emotions; instead, he forces the cast through a procession of cliched poses that seek to suggest stylish sophistication but merely leave the singers sounding wobbly and looking amateurish. A spoof of World War II rallies draws some welcome laughs with its kitschy comedy, but classic tunes like "The Man That Got Away," "Stormy Weather," and "Come Rain or Come Shine" come off as vapid at best and butchered at worst. And considering the composer's association with such artists as Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, and Pearl Bailey, there's something wrongheaded about an Arlen show with not one African-American cast member. --Albert Williams