8-Track at Theo Ubique Credit: Liz Lauren

Were the 1970s a time of sleepy dope-infused mellowness after the upheaval of the 1960s, or were they a continuation of revolt (politically and musically) by other means? Yes.

To get a sense of that paradox, it helps to revisit the music that served as the backdrop for the decade. And if you want a K-tel Records romp through the greatest hits of the era, then Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre has you covered with, um, covers. 8-Track, conceived by Rick Seeber, runs through about 50 songs of the 70s, loosely arranged thematically in eight (of course) categories like “War and Peace,” “Road Trip,” and perhaps inevitably, “Disco.”

That last category provides a good snapshot of how musical narrative gets written by the victors, if you will. I’m old enough to remember Steve Dahl’s Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in 1979, and “Disco Sucks” T-shirts were de rigueur for the Angry Young Men (and some young women) in my (mostly white) suburban high school. It was only much later that I learned the history of disco as the music of liberation for a lot of queer people of color, who created their own underground spaces before Saturday Night Fever

Director-choreographer Jamal Howard’s effervescent and earnest staging of 8-Track brings in queerness (including polyamory), along with shout-outs to feminism (Helen Reddy’s anthemic “I Am Woman” makes an appearance). And while this musical revue is more a good-time celebration than a political investigation, Howard and his cast do a decent job suggesting that music—even seemingly apolitical music—carries social messages in its DNA. 

8-Track: The Sounds of the 70s
Through 1/23: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 7 PM; no performances 12/23-12/26, Howard Street Theatre, 721 Howard, Evanston, 773-939-4101, theo-u.com, $42-$54 ($29 for three-course prix fixe dinner from Good To Go Jamaican Cuisine), $5 off seniors 65+; New Year’s Eve $70, $99 with dinner.

The 70s, after all, weren’t apolitical. It’s just that the political forces that really took over social justice movements weren’t led by the white guys of SDS—and thus were seemingly easier to overlook or dismiss. Because white guys in particular were no longer being drafted, and Watergate showed them the absolutely shocking revelation that other white guys are corrupt powermongering paranoiacs and therefore the best thing to do was just tune out or join them in making money (hi, Jerry Rubin!), the narrative of the 70s as a shallow and apathetic decade took insidious root. 

Instead, as 8-Track subtly suggests, the movements that gained momentum in that decade were gay liberation, women’s liberation, as well as the continuing fight for Black civil rights (along with the rise of disability rights, immigrant rights, and other issues not directly commented upon in this show, which also stops short of the late 70s punk movement). That’s a good readjustment to keep in mind when considering the 70s, and this show asks us to do it often enough to make it more than just a greatest-hits regurgitation. 

A returning Black Vietnam vet (Wesly Anthony Clergé) leads the ensemble in Edwin Starr’s “War,” and the Doobie Brothers’ “Takin’ It to the Streets,” suggesting both the asymmetrical impact of the Vietnam War on communities of color and that a lot of men came back from that war, just as Black soldiers did after World War II, to find that there was still a battle for basic civil rights being waged in their country. Two women (Mia Nevarez and Jasmine Lacy Young) drift in and out of a relationship, even while trying to fit into more conventional hetero couplings. A young man (Patrick O’Keefe) moves from adolescent awkwardness and isolation in Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, (Naturally)” to embracing his complicated feelings for other men in 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love.”

Along the way, musical director Jeremy Ramey’s four-piece band (cunningly called “The B Sides”) moves between soul, funk, disco, soft rock, country rock, and whatever the hell C.W. McCall’s “Convoy” is. (Michael Gribben is credited with the musical arrangements.)

I don’t mean to overstate the politics of this show; Boomer nostalgia is surely a big part of why it exists in the first place. Yet it’s still worth remembering that even silly love songs find a different meaning depending on who sings them, and that’s where Howard’s eight-member ensemble (especially Young and Clergé) excel. They find layers of wistfulness and resistance suggesting that the 70s weren’t so much about conformity as they were about questioning and resisting in different clothes and with different beats. If you hate 70s Top 40, this show may not change your mind. If you love it, you may hear some of these songs in a way you didn’t before.