BWW Review: CABARET is sultry and enticing at Mary Moody Northern Theater
CABARET, the classic 1966 musical about a young American writer in Berlin seeking inspiration from the English star of a risqué cabaret during the Nazi's rise to power, has been staged, re-staged, and reinterpreted a multitude of times over the years, but the current iteration playing at the Mary Moody Northern Theater at St. Edward's University is a vibrant, poignant and heart breaking rendition that the department has tackled with a wonderful spirit.
Directed by Danny Herman, with choreography by Herman and Rocker Verastique, this excellent staging utilizes the unique Theater in the Round setting of MMNT to transport the audience into the seedy, dreary and desperate world of the Kit Kat Club with aplomb. With the interesting decision to place the orchestra not in one place but scattered throughout the top of the audience seating areas, and to utilize every bit of playing space the theater has to offer, they manage to seamlessly immerse us into this story and keep us there until they choose to release us back to reality.
Since this is a production at an educational setting I'll focus mainly on the students, but it does need to be mentioned that four guest artists craft this production with the students and bring wonderful depth to the evening. Tyler Jones provides a delicious dichotomy by immediately endearing himself to the audience (and providing most of the laughs of the evening) before showing just how dangerous it can be to be willfully ignorant of the people with which we associate. As the Emcee of the cabaret Jerreme Rodriguez provides a roguish, explosive and delightful guide to the piece who is a joy to watch and follow wherever he may lead us. And the heart of the show belongs to Meredith McCall as Fraulein Schneider, the older woman who runs the boarding house the writer stays in and who finds unexpected happiness with Herr Schultz (Steve Ochoa) only to have it ripped away from her. She is simultaneously tender, strong, wise and foolish and provides a master class for the students whom I have no doubt were thrilled to work with her. For his part, Mr. Ochoa chose a much more animated, spry and spritely version of Herr Schultz than I anticipated, which was a departure from the more grounded, gentle character I have always seen associated with the role. While many enjoyed this take, for me I think it ultimately lessened the impact of his story arc with Fraulein Schneider. One of the potent, and indeed important, parallels in this show is the juxtaposition between the impetuous, youthful, and unrestrained relationship Cliff and Sally experience while Schultz and Schneider offer a calmer, more grounded and somehow deeper connection with each other. To match his energy more to Cliff and Sally than to Schneider diminished that comparison for me, and by extension the gravity and tragedy of his situation.
As for the students ..... I was thrilled by the tenacity with which they sank their teeth into this difficult material. In general this show is dark enough that it is a bold choice for younger people to perform just because of their limited life experience, but they committed to the show fully. The stylistic movement required by the Kit Kat dancers, the emotional complexity of the characters, the dedication to exposing the raw truths of these flawed individuals - they took each challenge head on and absolutely created a beautiful and evocative production. Leading the charge were Emily Ott as cabaret star Sally Bowles and Owen Ziegler as Clifford Bradshaw, the American writer. Supporting them are Madison Williams as Fraulein Kost, a fellow lodger and working girl, and a host of hard working ensembles members playing everything from sailors to club patrons to cabaret performers and everything in between.
Ms. Williams tackles a difficult role with great skill. Her Kost provides the viewpoint of someone who not only makes the best of a bad situation, but embraces it. While the character sleeps with men for money, is willing to blackmail her landlady for personal gain, and is the first non political character to openly embrace the Nazi regime and ideals, she nonetheless manages to maintain an air of a victim of circumstance rather than true vindictiveness or downright antagonism. It's a delicate balancing act that she dances nimbly across, and in a very real sense she embodies the terrifying unspoken lesson of the show - that perhaps the most dangerous person is a complacent person. She is someone who is content to allow bad things to happen to other people because it's better than a bad thing happening to her. It's an all too true mentality that has been thrust into our national spotlight over the past several years, and the point is made with a deft touch rather than a heavy hand. A remarkable feat she should be commended for.
Ms. Ott provides us with the volatile catalyst of the production, the seductive, hedonistic Sally Bowles. Bowles is a deceptively difficult undertaking, especially for a young performer who may not be quite as, well, lived in as the character. Ms. Ott, however, does not back down from the challenge, infusing her Bowles with a subtle desperation masked behind a fragile façade of exuberance. Her voice is beautiful and clear and it is a highlight of the production, although in many moments it seems as if the songs sit in a lower register than she may be comfortable with. I give full credit and accolades to Emily for the depth she is able to accomplish, but to be entirely truthful there does seem to be some ever so slight disconnect from the character. It may simply be that time has (fortunately) not yet thrust the performer into the same series of hard knocks that lead Sally to be the earthy, world weary siren that she is, or perhaps there might still be an innocence in the performer that is incongruous with the brazenness of the character. Whatever the case, it resulted in what felt like a lot of effort on the part of the performer rather than effort on the part of the character, which is a difference that can ever so subtly be perceived by the audience. Nonetheless, I applaud her for engaging in a role that is against type from what I have seen her portray in the past.
Interestingly, the surprise star of the show for me turned out to be Mr. Ziegler as Cliff Bradshaw, our protagonist. His Cliff was in turns vibrant, enthusiastic, lovable, jealous, suspicious, heart broken, ecstatic, nervous and each in its turn was seemingly effortless. It's always the hallmark of a gifted performer when the audience finds themselves watching them even when they are not the focus of the scene, and so I found myself always curious how Cliff was reacting to the world in which he had been thrust. The character is often an unsung hero of the show, a vehicle to provide us a through line so that Sally and Schultz and Schneider can steal the show, but Ziegler would have none of that and maintained a wonderful control of his story. Some of the more emotionally fraught moments of the show can become a little technical instead of natural in his performance, but he made a great showing overall. I was happy to see in the program that he is not graduating until next year because I very much would like to see what performances he has in store for us during his senior year.
From a technical stand point this is a solid, well-oiled machine of a show. The lighting design by Kathryn Eader is sultry, dingy and perfect. Costumes by Susan Branch Towne are immaculate and beautiful as always, from the glitz of the cabaret down to the stark reality of the boarding house, and the sheer number of different showpieces she allowed Mr. Rodriguez to cavort about in is an impressive feat made even more astounding by the detail and thought that clearly went into every piece. Special commendation also for having the orchestra fully and wonderfully incorporated into the visual ambiance of the show. Sound, always the most fickle of technical elements, was solid for the most part, with good design by Rodd Simonsen providing appealing yet unobtrusive atmosphere. There are a few moments when footfalls of the performers during large choreography moments could drown out the vocals, but that did not detract from the experience even if it was noticeable. There does seem to be a rather huge difference in mix depending on where you sit in the space due to being closer or further from various instruments. I heard concerns from some audience that a sound block like the one found in front of the drums would be beneficial in the brass/sax area as well, but from where I was sitting between the strings and the piano it was a nice mix. And as for the choreography itself, this made wonderful use of the varied skill levels of the performers while never shying away from the world of the material. The numbers are alternatingly fun, thrilling, seductive, funny and unexpected. It was a wonderful success and I sincerely hope Mr. Herman and Mr. Verastique are pleased with the result.
This production of CABARET is a fantastic showing of a classic musical, with stellar work by the cast and creatives. It only runs for a limited time, from April 6-9 and April 12-15 with shows at 7:30 PM on most evenings and a 2:00 PM matinee on 4/9 and 4/15. Tickets can be found by visiting https://www.stedwards.edu/mary-moody-northen-theatre, and I highly recommend you do so.
Photo credit: David Long