Thursday, July 11, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 177, A Review: "Cabaret" (Connecticut Repertory Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

"Willkommen! And bienvenue! Welcome!
Fremder, etranger, stranger
Glucklich zu sehen
Je suis enchante.
Happy to see you
Bleibe, reste, stay
Willkommen! And bienvenue! Welcome!
I'm cabaret, au cabaret, to cabaret!"

Reprising the grunge, the turbulence, the sex, the depravity, the homosexuality, the angst and the soul of Kander and Ebb's edgy classic American musical "Cabaret," Connecticut Repertory Theatre  strikes the right chord - on every level - as its dutifully exposes the dangers, the shock, the prejudice and the insidious political climate of pre-war Berlin during the Hitler regime in Germany. The way this production - unfolds and unravels from scene to scene with such amazing clarity - makes it impossible for one to look away for a single second.  And when the ball drops and "Cabaret" reaches its scorching, numbing conclusion, the effect is so emotionally draining, it's impossible not to be moved, disturbed, stunned or completely silenced by it all.

No sugar coating, here.
No watered down, facts.
No one-note characters.
No pretty backgrounds, costuming, lighting effects or happy endings.
Just real people, real stories, real life, real pain, real reflection, set to music.

The Players:

Forrest McClendon as the Emcee.
Laura Michelle Kelly as Sally Bowles.
Dee Hoty as Fraulein Schneider.
Jonathan Brody as Herr Schultz.
Rob Barnes as Clifford Bradshaw.
Leslie Blake Walker as Fraulein Kost.
Aidan Marchetti as Ernst Ludwig.

All seven - well chosen for each of the roles that are asked to portray - are equally strong in their own right as both actors and singers, serving as the musical's emotional voice and link to a troubled past in a world where illusion, fact and fantasy are about to be stripped naked and bare. And life, as they know it, is about to disappear forever and plunge completely into a darkness from which there is no escape.
Public zeitgeist, in black, white and grey with only a dalliance of color.

First performed on Broadway in November, 1966, the original "Cabaret" story by Joe Masterhoff and the award-winning musical score by Kander and Ebb has been changed, altered, rewritten and revised to include original songs from the 1972 film adaptation or new ones that were introduced in subsequent incarnations including the 1993 London revival by Sam Mendes, his subsequent 1998 production on Broadway with Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles, the 2012 London version and yet another Broadway outing, two years later. This edition takes its cue from the 1998 Sam Mendes outing and deletes "Meeskite," "The Telephone Song" and "Why Should I Wake Up?" from the song list, but adds "Maybe This Time" "Mein Herr" "Heiraten" from the original motion picture and the Mendes revival along with "I Don't Care Much" from the 1987 production that brought Joel Grey back to Broadway to reprise his original Tony award-winning role. Elsewhere, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" is powerfully reworked (as it was in the 1972 film adaptation) to reflect the song's strong Nazi overtones, which here, signal the atrocities and horrors awaiting both Jews and homosexuals. The effect, in turn, is just as numbing as it was on film and in the 1998 and 2014 Broadway revivals."Don't Go," a powerful ballad which was added for Cliff's character in the 1987 Broadway production, however, is nowhere to be found.

Not to worry, though.
This "Cabaret" wisely preserves most of the music from the original 1966 Broadway production that starred Jill Haworth, Lotte Lenya, Joel Grey, Bert Convy, Edward Winter and Peg Murray. In short: "Willkommen!" "So What?" "Don't Tell Mama," "Perfectly Marvelous," "Two Ladies," "It Couldn't Please Me More (A Pineapple)," "Money," "Married," "If You Could See Her," "Cabaret" and the "Willkommen! (Reprise)"

For Connecticut Repertory Theatre, musical direction for "Cabaret" has fallen into the more than capable hands of musical director Ken Clifton (piano and conductor) whose credits include "West Side Story," "Les Miserables," "Avenue Q," "Sunset Boulevard" and "Miss Saigon." Joining him
are Tom McDonough (synthesizer), Chris Coffey (drums), Matt McCauley (bass), Mallory Kokus (reeds 1), Al Wasserman (reeds 2), John Helmke (trumpet 1), Jim Lendvay (trumpet 2) and Thomas Bora (guitar and banjo). What's remarkable here is Clifton's smart, melodic take on the flavorful  Kander and Ebb musical score, its character-driven songs, its emotional undercurrents, its mood swings, its varied beats and rhythms and its seductive, mindful evolution throughout the actual "Cabaret" story.

With Clifton and his brilliant orchestral team front and center, the pungent "Cabaret" musical score achieves a thrilling, edgy passion and pulse that takes it to an entirely new level of musical theatre. Yes, we know the music. Yes, we know who sings what and when. Yes, we are familiar with lyrics. Yes, we understand their intended meaning. Regardless, every song that is played and sung, achieves the angst, attitude, spirit, humor, individuality and openness that Kander and Ebb intended. Things evolve with such a fiery and intense purpose, familiar songs like "Cabaret," "Maybe This Time," "Willkommen!" "Mein Herr" and "If You Could See Her" take on new meaning, thus, giving additional sting, bite and melodrama to the already popular music.

Staging "Cabaret," director Scott LaFeber takes his inspiration from the 1972 film version and the many different Broadway productions including the 1998 Sam Mendez edition, which is the blueprint utilized for this version of the oft-produced musical. But he is no copycat. LaFeber, like others before him, dances to his own tune. As creator and interpreter, he is not interested in presenting another "Cabaret" that plays by the rule book or reenacts a previous incarnation, scene by scene, song by song, act by act. With this "Cabaret" he finds new ways to seduce, titillate and thrill his audience by offering a more candid, believable take on the material, its characters, its sexual content, its edginess and its eventual outcome. Here, he exposes Cliff's homosexuality (the character is based, in part, on the real-life Christopher Isherwood) openly without any form of hesitation. He defines the grimy yet inviting allure of pre-war Berlin, its decadent populace and the seedy, after hours clubs where sexual favors are performed with any combination or pairing. He also pays close attention of the issues facing Jews living in Germany and what will happen when the Nazi takeover begins.

What's great about this "Cabaret" is that LeFeber doesn't whitewash, downplay or censor anything.
As both director and storyteller, he tells it like it is. He adds color and dimension to every one of the principal and supporting characters. He allows each and every one of them to bare their souls openly and honestly as they try to make sense out of the changing world that will eventually rip them apart and toss them in the gutter. He doesn't glamorize or underplay the drama, the heat, the emotion and the brutality of the material. He also takes key points from John Van Druten's "I Am a Camera" and Christopher Isherwood's "The Berlin Stories" and adds them to his interpretation. And finally, he lets the material breathe, sit, pause and resonate.

A song-and-dance number needs to take its audience on a truthful, emotional journey and choreographer Christoper d'Amboise does exactly that with "Cabaret." Iconic, alluring, stylish and amazingly re-vitalized, every one of the dances in this production unfolds in a precise, bold manner that pays homage to the original work, the 1972 film by Bob Fosse and the 1998 Broadway revival which was choreographed by Rob Marshall. At the same time, d'Amboise puts his own personal stamp on these important numbers - "Willkommen!" "Mein Herr," "Don't Tell Mama," "If You Could See Her," "Two Ladies" "Money" - incorporating new moves, new combinations, new beats and new poses that adhere to the show's decadent concept, but dance to their own decided beat using exciting gender-bending twists, themes and ideas from d'Amboise's  innovative, imaginative blueprint.

Forrest McClendon, a tremendously talented actor who received a Tony Award nomination for his amazing performance in the 2010 Broadway edition of Kander and Ebb's musical "The Scottsboro Boys," is a natural fit for the role of "Cabaret's" Master of Ceremonies. He dazzles. He shines. He flirts. He cajoles. He manipulates. He attacks. He fascinates. But like LeFeber, he too, dances to a decidedly different drumbeat. Welcoming everyone into the musical lair of the Kit Kat Klub with the icy-cool and decadent "Willkommen!" his Emcee bears absolutely no resemblance to other actors who've played the part including Joel Grey, Alan Cumming, John Stamos, Wayne Sleep, Barry Dennen, Will Young or Randy Harrison. Instead, we get a more slick, powerful, commanding showman who loves the spotlight, loves being center stage and loves being the star attraction. It's a bold move, yes. But it's one that works most ingeniously within the context of the story. It's a unique, steadied interpretation that  mixes eroticism, decadence, wit, individuality and gayness most agreeably and compliments the mood and feel of pre-war Berlin right before the bomb dropped and all hell broke lose changing the face of Germany forever.

Laura Michelle Kelly who originated the role of Mary Poppins in the original 2004 London edition of the Disney musical and played opposite Matthew Morrison in the 2014 Broadway production of  "Finding Neverland," tackles the role of original party girl and Kit Kat Klub lead singer Sally Bowles with a laid-back flourish indicative of all those movie queen goddesses of the 1930's including Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard. Kelly's Sally is very different from almost everyone who has played the role before including Jill Haworth, Natasha Richardson, Michelle Ryan, Lea Thompson Liza Minnelli and Michelle Williams, but it nonetheless, captures the naughty, confused, unpredictable abandon of the woman depicted in Isherwood's original stories and in this version, the delusional grandeur of someone who refuses to see what is happening around her and how she will eventually be swallowed up whole without any warning.

Vocally, Kelly is as sensational and as commanding as she was in "Mary Poppins," "Finding Neverland," "Me and My Girl" and last year's "The Royal Family of Broadway" at Barrington Stage. Given the vast repertoire of Sally's songs in "Cabaret" - "Don't Tell Mama," "Mein Herr," "Perfectly Marvelous," "Maybe This Time," "Cabaret" - Kelly offers her own personal take on every one of these ever-popular Kandler and Ebb showtunes and delivers them with the excitement and flair intended by "Cabaret's" celebrated musical duo. Her emotional engagement, breezy vibe, radiance and vocal clarity are trademark perfect as is her ability to convey the meaning behind every lyric and every musical beat put before her. Showstopping? Yes, indeed.

In the role of Fraulein Schneider originated by Lotte Lenya in the original Broadway production of "Cabaret" and played in subsequent incarnations by Signe Hasso, Mary Louise Wilson, Regina Resnik and Linda Edmond, among others, Dee Hoty offers one of the best interpretations of the character with a performance that is truly magnificent. Real, raw, and emotional, the actress takes hold of the part, looks at it front, center, backwards and forwards and invests it with the truth and honesty envisioned by the show's creators when "Cabaret" was first performed in 1966. But she's no copycat either. This is her interpretation. This is her characterization. This is her moment. That said, it's a performance that comes from the heart and one you're not likely to forget for quite some time.
Musically, Hoty is in top form. Her rendition of "So What" is as powerful and commanding as Lenya's was. Her duets with Jonathan Brody - "It Couldn't Please Me More (A Pineapple)" and "Married" are sung with real, heartfelt, sweet-tinged emotion. Much later, Hoty delivers the potent and stirring "What Would You Do?" a song about choices, desperation, survival and life's deafening blows, with such truth and anguish, we really feel her character's pain. It is one of the high points of this exhilarating revival and one that Lenya would applaud, if she were alive today.

Aspiring American writer Cliff Bradshaw, as portrayed by Rob Barnes, a third year MFA acting candidate at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, is dashing, handsome and heartfelt and often reminds one of a very young Christoper Isherwood. At times, he acts the part, rather than owning it, but it's just a hiccup or two that can easily be addressed with a few helpful tips from the director. Vocally, he is booming, as evidenced in the second half of "Perfectly Marvelous." But as "Cabaret" evolves, he doesn't get the opportunity to do anything else because Cliff's big Act II solo "Why Should I Wake Up?" doesn't exist in the 1998 revival and the character's other big ballad "Don't Go" was only heard in the 1987 Broadway edition of "Cabaret." Such a shame because Barnes has the vocal chops to pull off both songs most engagingly.
As Ernst Ludwig, Aidan Marchetti  delivers an honest, edgy portrayal of a German citizen who offers Cliff work smuggling currency in and out of Paris and eventually reveals his ties to the Nazi regime as the "Cabaret" story plunges forward.

As Fraulein Kost, Leslie Blake Walker is saucy, sexy, devious, cunning and ever-so-appealing in typical Red-Light district fashion, which is exactly what the part calls for. Underneath that facade, the actress deftly communicates the character's desperation, pain, sexual angst and fight for survival in the wake of a troubled tomorrow that will change her life forever. Vocally, Walker is at the top of her game with the eye-opening "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" sung with both Ernst Ludwig and the "Cabaret" ensemble. The actress also gets to sing "Heiraten," the German version of "Married," which LaFeber adds to the original vocals, sung in this production by Frauelin Schneider and Herr Schultz. The mixing of the two numbers together with three very different voices is a stroke of genius on everyone's part and one that adds additional shading and resonance to the song itself and its intended meaning.

Jonathan Brody, in the role of Jewish shopkeeper Herr Schultz, a part made famous by Jack Gilford in the original 1966 Broadway production of "Cabaret," offers a warm, sincere and compassionate portrayal of a troubled man who refuses to recognize the danger that lies ahead for German Jews under the Nazi regime by saying "It will pass. It will pass." But sadly, it never does, a fact that adds horrifying resonance to his characterization at the end of Act II.

"Cabaret" is thrilling musical theatre. Edgy, brazen and enthralling, it embraces both the conceit's set forth by Christopher Isherwood in "The Berlin Stories" and John Van Druten in "I Am a Camera" with bone-chilling resonance. Its numbing descent into the Nazi nightmare of Hitler's Germany is portrayed with raw intensity and boldness. As seen through the eyes of director Scott LaFeber, the actual story is decadent, brazen and revelatory. The Kander and Ebb score is full of melodically convincing music at every single turn. The cast - every single one of them - are completely in sync with the songs and the various stories envisioned by the show's creators and collaborators. And the ending - the Emcee facing upstage with his back to the audience as three Nazi flags drop quickly into place ending in complete darkness - will leave you broken and shaken, the way LaFeber and his creative team intended.

"Cabaret" is being staged at Connecticut Repertory Theatre (Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre, 2132 Hillside Rd., Storrs, CT), now through July 21.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 486-2113.

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