at the Roxy

Simple, unpretentious, mostly intelligent–Rob Riley’s cabaret show certainly doesn’t come wrapped in any profound theory of theater. Producer/director/emcee Riley doesn’t call his show revolutionary or neo-futurist or postmodern. He doesn’t try to palm off bad performances as art. Instead he delivers a fairly entertaining evening featuring many more talented singers, comics, and musicians than you’d expect in a show performed only one night a week–and on a Tuesday at that!

The varied performers include folksinger Chris Farrell, performance artist Betsy Walton, Russ Flack, Karol Kent, and Paul Raci of the Friends of the Zoo, and comic Peter Burns of the maybe sleeping, maybe defunct Willow Street Carnival. And there can’t be many small cabarets that have their own six-member rock-jazz band–International Fingers, led by the show’s musical director, Domenic Bucci, on the guitar.

But all the talent in Chicago can’t help the fact that the material in Cabaret Rebob’s 20-some acts, as in many variety shows, ranges from the outstanding to the simply dreadful. The show’s many serious musical numbers are, without exception, wonderful. Among the best: Chris Farrell’s sweet folk song “My Circus Days,” Max Stein’s highly polished “As Time Goes By,” and Russ Flack’s wonderfully original version of Cab Calloway’s signature song, “Minnie the Moocher.”

The show’s comedy songs, however, fall flat more often than not. For example, Karol Kent and Pat Cannon perform an energetic but vulgar parody of truckers’ music–“We chowed down on truck-stop love”–that might have been fairly funny by itself. But Kent and Cannon try to squeeze even more laughter out of it by faking a fight onstage, which needlessly complicates the act and doesn’t make it any more amusing.

A somewhat more successful comic song is performed by a pair of mock performance artists who call themselves Jazzpoetry . . . Truth. Dressed only in black tights and tops, they take shots at two fairly easy targets–mimes and performance artists. Still, they manage to put together three pretty humorous routines. The best bit consists of the two of them demolishing a toy piano while singing that old Rice Krispies opera-parody jingle from the early 70s: “No more Rice Krispies! We’ve run out of Rice Krispies! My tears will not stop, until I hear snap, crackle, and pop!”

Betsy Walton also gets in her licks, in a rock parody disguised as performance art. She plays a straitlaced businesswoman who, in the middle of a very dry business presentation, undergoes a Jekyll and Hyde transformation. Halfway through a paragraph about accident statistics, Walton suddenly strips off her business suit, and clad only in her panties and a pair of plastic breasts, she rocks her way through an act that consists mostly of her jumping around the stage like a 15-year-old on speed while singing a song that consists mostly of the phrase “naughty girl.”

The worst bit of the show, without a doubt, is Russ Flack’s “Harry Dump” routine, transplanted intact from the Friends of the Zoo’s current show, Oh My . . . Nuts! Flack plays a comedian with a really bad case of potty mouth. Dump’s motto is: “Never be sharp, never be flat, always BM,” and every joke he tells is similarly disgusting. When Dump asks, “How do you make a turd float?” I just don’t want to know. Is this the reason Lenny Bruce was martyred in the 60s? So that comedians could make stupid jokes about shit in the 80s?

Almost as bad is Peter Burns’s running gag about Pete’s corner. From time to time during the show, Riley checks in with Peter Burns, who sits with his wife in Pete’s corner, a mock-up of a typical Chicago prole’s living room that’s set up along one wall. Riley asks Burns David Letterman-style questions, like: “Well, Pete, how is the show going so far?” To which Burns is supposed to improvise some sarcastic answer in the manner of Chris Elliot. Unfortunately, on the night I saw the show, Burns was clearly distracted by the presence of Norman Mark, and a good 50 percent of his time was spent telling mildly insulting, mildly flattering jokes about Mark. There is nothing less funny than a comedian trying to at once tell jokes and kiss a critic’s ass.

Happily, nothing else in the show descends to the depths of Harry Dump and Pete’s corner. Even Bob Odenkirk’s contrived comic monologue, though twice as long as it needs to be, manages to be mildly humorous. And most of the show rises so far above Mr. Dump and Pete that these two could be snipped entirely and never be missed.