Sunday, August 18, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 188, A Review: "Cabaret" (Ivoryton Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

"From 1929 to 1933, I lived almost continuously in Berlin, with only occasional visits to other parts of Germany and to England. Already, during that time, I had made my mind up that I would one day write about the people I'd met and the experiences I was having. So I kept a detailed diary, which in due course, provided the raw material for all of my Berlin stories."
(Christoper Isherwood,"The Berlin Stories")

And so, it begins.

Reprising the grunge, the turbulence, the sex, the excitement, the depravity, the seediness, the homosexuality, the angst, the unrest and the harsh undercurrents of Kander and Ebb's edgy classic American musical "Cabaret," Ivoryton Playhouse strikes the right chord - on every level - as its chillingly 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 moves from scene to scene with such amazing flourish and clarity - makes it impossible for one to look away for a single second. And when the ball drops at the end of Act II and "Cabaret" reaches its scorching, numbing conclusion, the effect is so emotionally draining, it's impossible not to be moved, disturbed, shaken or completely silenced by it all.

This is a very different "Cabaret"
The camera, so to speak, has its shutter wide open in the most curious, blatant and inviting of ways.
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.
Public zeitgeist, in black, white and grey with only a dalliance of color.


"Cabaret," at Ivoryton, pierces your emotional senses, envelops you in its rippling musical narrative, kicks you in the ass, smacks you in the face and gets you all hot and bothered as it revisits Joe Masteroff's oft-told story.

First performed on Broadway in November, 1966, the original "Cabaret" musical, which includes Kander and Ebb's thrilling, award-winning musical score, has been changed, altered, rewritten and revised through the years 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, Jack Gilford, 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," "What Would You Do?" "Cabaret" and the "Willkommen! (Reprise)"

For Ivoryton Playhouse, musical direction for "Cabaret" has fallen into the more than capable hands of music director Michael Morris whose credits at the Connecticut-based theater include "A Chorus Line," "Rent," "A Night With Janis Joplin," "West Side Story" and "Dreamgirls,." Joining him are Andrew Janes (trombone), David Uhl (bass), Nicholas Borghoff (clarinet, alto sax), Dan Hartington (banjo, guitar), Harrison Kliewe (clarinet, tenor sax), Seth Bailey (trumpet), Elliot Wallace (drums) and Tom Conroy (piano).  Here, as in other productions which he has musically directed, Morris knows exactly how to make the music blaze and sing. "Cabaret" is no different. His smart, refreshing take on the popular Kander and Ebb musical score, its character-driven songs, its emotional undercurrents, its mood swings, its varied beats and its timeless simplicity heightens the musical's allure, its style and its mindful evolution over the allotted two-act time frame.

"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!"
(Emcee, "Cabaret")

With Morris and his tremendously talented orchestral team at the helm, this "Cabaret" achieves a saucy, explicit, edgy passion and depth that takes the already familiar music to an entirely new level. There are some rewrites here and there that are effectively implemented for scene changes, comedy or dramatic effect. Nonetheless, every song that is played and sung, achieves the mindset, angst, attitude, spirit and and openness that Kander and Ebb intended. In turn, nothing gets lost in the translation or gets sidelined. Here, things evolve with such finesse and purpose, familiar songs like "Two Ladies," "Cabaret," "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," "Maybe This Time," "Willkommen!" "Mein Herr" and "If You Could See Her," among others, take on new meaning, thus, giving additional sting, bite and melodrama to the already popular music. As "Cabaret" evolves, the energy created, mixed with the rolling complexity and expressionism of the individual musical numbers, heightens the overall feeling, its innate theatricality, it's heavy sense of menace and its sonic, orchestral tapestry.

Staging "Cabaret," director Todd Underwood takes his cue from the wildly popular, dramatically challenging 1998 Sam Mendes Broadway edition, which is the blueprint utilized for this version of the two-act musical that also includes new scenes, new dialogue and new characters. But like others before him, Underwood 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. That would bore the hell out of him and soften his creative input, which if you've seen any of his previous works, you already know that's not going to happen here. This director loves a challenge and he finds exactly that -  and so much more - at Ivoryton.

With this "Cabaret" he offers a more candid, believable and sensuous take on the material, its characters, its sexual content, its edginess, its politics, its depravity and its bleak, startling outcome.  Here, he exposes Cliff's homosexuality openly (the character is based, in part, on the real-life Christopher Isherwood) with kissing, touching and heated exchanges that give the character a certain edge, definition and groundness. Sally Bowles, in turn, is much more than just a party girl earning a living on her back or singing in a seedy nightclub. For this go-round, she is desperate, confused and completely oblivious to the world around her. Underwood also deftly defines the grimy yet inviting allure of pre-war Berlin, its decadent populace and the cheap, after hours clubs where sexual favors and sexual acts are performed with any combination or pairing. He also pays close attention of the issues facing German Jews and homosexuals living in Berlin and what will happen to them and others when the Nazi takeover begins

"There is a problem. A new problem. New to me because I had not thought about it. But at the party last night, my eyes were opened."
(Fraulein Schneider, "Cabaret") 

What's great about this telling of "Cabaret" is that Underwood doesn't whitewash, downplay or censor anything. As both director and storyteller, he simply tells it like it is. He adds color, excitement 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 around them that will eventually rip them apart, imprison them or toss them head first 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. He lets the material breathe, stir, sit, pause and resonate.
He also effectively utilizes the talents of his brilliant technical design team - Daniel Nischan (set design), Marcus Abbott (lighting design), Ray Smith (sound design), Kate Bunce (costume design) - to flesh out the drama of the story, its detailed story arcs, its political climate, its musicality and its evolving undercurrents of gloom and doom which prompt the musical's shocking, important conclusion.

What about the choreography, you ask?
A twirl, a pose, a gasp, a flash of something naughty in the darkness.
In musical theatre, a song-and-dance number - big, small or somewhere, in between - needs to take its audience on a truthful, emotional, plot-evolving journey in order to make the show's story, characterizations and varying themes resonate. Here, Underwood, doubling as choreographer, does exactly that with his decidedly searing, colorful, often hard dance images which capture the harsh, queer, inscrutable essence of being in Berlin during the 1930's. No homogenizing. No cuteness. Just bare, real, raw, in-your-face innovation and wellspring.

Collective, eye-catching, spirit-filled, grim and gritty, every one of the dances in this production unfolds in a precise, bold manner that pays homage to the original work and the iconic 1998 Broadway revival of "Cabaret" which was choreographed by Rob Marshall. But you won't find any copycatting here. Underwood dances to his own beat and digs deep into the musical's original source's and undercurrents while at the same time, putting his own personal stamp on the show's important numbers - "Willkommen!" "Mein Herr," "Don't Tell Mama," "If You Could See Her," "Two Ladies" "Money" - to make them breathe, pulse, allude, seduce and plunge us headfirst into the pending action of the piece. Dancers stand. Dancers pose. Heads droop. Arms, legs and feet move imaginatively to the beat of the music. Underwood's addition of new moves, new combinations, new beats and new poses heightens show's already proven decadent concept, but unleashes a bolder, innovative, imaginative blueprint that works to the show's advantage and its twisty conclusion designed to leave you broken, shaken and disturbed.

The casting of Sam Given in the role made famous by Joel Grey in the original "Cabaret, " the 1972 film adaptation and the subsequent 1987 Broadway revival, is a stroke of genius on Ivoryton's part. It's a showstopping character turn that is uniquely original, genuine, bawdy and animated. As "Cabaret's" Master of Ceremonies, Given welcomes us into the world of decadent Berlin and its shameless sexual haven, mischievously, eerily and seductively. He dazzles. He shines. He sparkles. He flirts. He manipulates. He fascinates. He seduces. He teases. He surprises.
He's also an original who creates his own interpretation of the iconic character without ever once looking back at Joel Grey's award-winning performance. Here, you get a uniquely different Emcee who wears both men's clothes and women's clothes agreeably and bounces back and forth in gumby-like fashion like a firecracker on the Fourth of July, offering a winning combination of actor-audience showmanship (Given exudes a sexy magnetism that heightens the play's subtext)  that mixes eroticism, wit, pathos, gayness and condemnation most advantageously.

Musically, Given shines, sparkles and delights. His "Willkommen" has bite, flourish and decadent vitality. "If You Could See Her" is both amusingly and sardonically sung and danced with a scene-stealing female gorilla who loves being in the limelight with her handsome partner who isn't sidetracked by her Jewishness. "Money," performed alongside the Kit Kat Klub female chorus, is a sheer delight. "Two Ladies" is both sexy and mischievous. "I Don't Care Much," which he sings like a dying prisoner awaiting execution, is shivering, commanding and definitely worth an encore or two.

In the pivotal role of tawdry Berlin party girl Sally Bowles, Katie Mack delivers a robust, free-spirited, kinky portrayal of the Kit Kat Klub's naughty, fancy-free entertainer with gleeful, wicked, celebrated abandon. So very right for the role, she delves deep -  very deep - into the character's idiosyncratic persona and crafts a wonderfully believable performance that is completely in sync with the Sally of Isherwood's "Berlin Stories" and the Sally portrayed in Van Druten's hypnotic "I Am a Camera." Acting wise, Mack also dramatically captures the confused, unpredictable abandon of a delusional woman seduced by money and grandeur, but completely oblivious to the political climate around her and its stinging, hateful, prejudiced repercussions.
Vocally, she's a powerhouse, offering her own, personal, dynamic take on "Cabaret's" most celebrated songs - "Maybe This Time," "Perfectly Marvelous," "Mein Herr," "Don't Tell Mama," "Cabaret." Her emotional engagement, breezy vibe, sparkle and vocal clarity are trademark perfect as is her ability to project the intended meaning behind every lyric and every musical beat put before her. She doesn't just sing the songs, she owns them. And when it comes time for Sally to deliver the showstopping title tune near the end of Act II, the actress offers a unique twist to the number that thrusts her center stage in a hellish, nightmarish euphoria that serves as a wake up call that eventually will swallow her up whole along with her beloved Berlin.

Ambitious, struggling American writer Cliff Bradshaw, a gay novelist struggling with his sexual identity, is played in this production by Andy Tighe who makes his Ivoryton Playhouse debut. The character, based in part, on the real-life Christopher Isherwood, is well-played by the actor who deftly projects the image of a well-spoken, determined writer who ends up meeting and bedding some of the play's most important characters including the infamous Sally Bowles. His performance is heartfelt, personable and entirely likeable. Vocally, he is strong, note-perfect and emotional, as evidenced in the second half of the cheeky and charming "Perfectly Marvelous," which he performs with Mack. But as "Cabaret" spins forward, he doesn't get the opportunity to sing anything else because Cliff's big Act II solo "Why Should I Wake Up?" doesn't exist in the 1998 revival (puzzling, to say the very least) and the character's other big ballad "Don't Go" was only heard in the 1987 Broadway edition of "Cabaret." Such a loss because Tighe has the vocal chops (check out his stirring rendition of "Wondering" from "The Bridges of Madison County" on YouTube) to pull off both songs most engagingly.

As the sexually promiscuous Fraulein Kost, Carolyn Connolly is saucy, racy, sexy and cunning in typical Red-Light district fashion (the character moonlights as a prostitute to pay her weekly rent), which is exactly what the part calls for. Underneath that painted facade, however, the actress believably communicates Kost's nationalist beliefs, her desperation and pain, her uninhibited sexuality and her fight for survival in a world that's about to change her life forever. Vocally, Connolly has a feel-good glow and Broadway style song delivery that puts her at the top of her game in the eye-opening "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" sung with both Ernst Ludwig (played by Will Clark) and the full-voiced "Cabaret" ensemble. The actress also gets to sing the haunting "Heiraten," the German version of "Married," which in this version is added to the original vocals, sung by Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. The mixing of the two numbers together with three very different voices is a defining moment of Act I that adds additional color and resonance to the song itself and its well-intended meaning of togetherness.

In the pivotal role of Fraulein Schneider originated by Lotte Lenya in the original Broadway production of "Cabaret," Carolyn Popp offers a strong, convincing characterization that is real, honest and raw. It's a part she owns to the fullest and one she invests with the edge, charm and truthfulness envisioned by the show's creators. Musically, the actress is in top form, capturing the underlying emotions of her character's songs with passion and exquisite sensitivity. Her rendition of the perplexing "So What?" is as powerful and commanding as Lenya's was. Her duets with John Little - "It Couldn't Please Me More (A Pineapple)" and "Married" are sung with heartfelt, sweet-tinged, stirring emotion. Much later, she delivers the potent and heartbreaking "What Would You Do?" an important song about choices, desperation, survival and life's deafening blows. There is such truth and anguish in her interpretation, we really feel her character's pain and struggle through the lyrics.

John Little, in the role of Jewish shopkeeper Herr Schultz, a part made famous by Jack Gilford in the original 1966 Broadway production of "Cabaret," delivers a heartfelt, sincere and compassionate portrait of a lonely and kindly man who longs for companionship with Fraulein Schneider, but refuses to acknowledge 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.

"Sally, wake up! The party in Berlin is over!"
(Cliff Bradshaw, "Cabaret")

"Cabaret" is gripping, trembling musical theatre. Daring, edgy, flip and enthralling, it embraces both the provocative 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 re-configured by director Todd Underwood, the actual story is more decadent, brazen and truthful. The Kander and Ebb score is chock full of melodically convincing music that is the heartbeat of this "Cabaret." The cast - every single one of them - are completely in sync with the songs, the characters, the dialogue and the various story arcs envisioned by the show's creators and collaborators. And the ending - the entire cast dressed in grey, striped prisoner costuming reflective of the Nazi death camps - is not only a stoke of genius on Underwood's part, but one that gives this production of "Cabaret"  a metaphorical darkness that stings, hurts and breaks you in two.

"Berlin was in a stage of civil war. Hate exploded suddenly, without warning. out of nowhere; at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming-baths; at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon."
(Christopher Isherwood, "The Berlin Stories")

"Cabaret" is being staged at Ivoryton Playhouse (103 Main St., Ivoryton, CT), now through September 1.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 767-7318

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