Wilbury Group's CABARET is a Surpisingly Dull, Disappointing Season Ender
Since the earliest shows produced by The Wilbury Group, the company has grown by leaps and bounds, becoming a force in the Rhode Island theater scene. They've established themselves a fine young professional theater company and arrive now at the end of a theatrical season they can and should be proud of. On the other hand, their final show of this season seems to be a bit of a step backwards. Or, perhaps, a missed opportunity, as their production of the classic musical Cabaret is surprisingly and disappointingly safe and rather dull.
For those unfamiliar with the musical, Cabaret tells the story of Cliff, an Ameican writer who arrives in Berlin, Germany, just before the start of World War II. After finding a place to stay in Fraulein Schneider's rooming house, Cliff visits the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy nightclub where the headlining performer is a British singer named Sally Bowles. Cliff and Sally fall in love as the world around them falls apart, threatening to take them and those they care about down with it.
Cabaret is certainly a musical that can be and has been interpreted many ways, with numerous productions offering a different take on the show. Having seen numerous production of it myself, there have been those which offered something truly unique and shocking, and those that truly played it safe. Having enjoyed much of Wilbury Group's risk-taking in the past, I expected this production to have some of that same boldness. It was surprising, then, to find a production of Cabaret that is bland, vanilla and lacking in any risk at all. The envelope doesn't just not get pushed, it doesn't even appear on stage. For the company that brought Blasted to their stage, it's surprising to have such a conservative and staid interpretation of a show that's just beginning for all sorts of risk taking.
Making things curiousier is the fact that the show is directed by Tom Gleadow, who so often brings a wonderful manic or eccentric energy to his performances on stage. There's no sign of that energy here, though, as he keeps everything about as sedate as possible. In his director's notes in the program, he even references a quote about the Kit Kat Klub being sexual and decadent. It's odd because there's hardly any sexuality or sexiness at all in his version of the Klub. He also referenced Cliff's sexuality in the program notes, and that, too, gets ignored during the actual production. Why mention these things if they aren't going to be important and essential parts of what the audience sees on stage?
There are a number of other times when Gleadow makes surprising or odd directing choices. Actors are staged with their backs to the audience on a number of occasions. At other times, actors cross the stage for absolutely no apparent reason or are talking/singing to each other without even looking at each other. These kinds of choices don't help to tell the story or deepen the characters at all, and, in fact, they tend to do the opposite. The staging as a whole fails to really support or tell the story in a deeper way, nor does it take advantage of the opportunity to truly immerse the audience in the story, something Wilbury's theatrical space is perfectly suited for.
This production also falters due to some of the casting choices. While Jo-an Peralta has given some wonderful and impressive performances in the past, he is woefully miscast here as the Emcee. Lacking the magnetism and charisma that's necessary for the role, he seems out of place as the Kit Kat Klub's master of ceremonies. He just doesn't have that combination of charm, sexiness and an underlying feeling of something sinister or almost creepy. Not helping is the fact that he doesn't have the singing voice or vocal talents to handle the musical numbers, where he seems lost or out of place at times.
With plenty of vocal talent to spare, Katie Travers fares much better as Sally Bowles. She handles all of the singing wonderfully and blows the roof off the building during her big solo number in the second act, which is one of the show's real highlights. While Travers doesn't necessarily look the part, she's a little too cute, fresh-faced, and innocent looking, it's a performance that demand's the play's full length to be appreciated. By the play's end, Travers has skillfully demonstrated Sally's journey, from that innocent young girl to a woman who is hardened and even devastated by what she's done and what she's gone through.
As Cliff, Joshua Andrews delivers a fine, though not outstanding performance. Mostly, it's bland and kind of dull, lacking in real energy. It's not helped by the fact that he and Travers have little chemistry together and don't feel like a believable couple. Most of their dramatic scenes together feel rushed and glossed over, while never feeling truthful or organic.
It's the other couple in the show who really shine, and, truthfully, become the show's center. As Fraulein Schneider, Maria Day-Hyde is a revelation. Her performance is wonderfully nuanced and perfectly believable as she embodies a woman who is caught up in impossible circumstances. Her singing voice is lovely and she manages to not just sing, but truthfully live, each of her songs. At the same time, her charisma makes her the center of attention when she is onstage, a character who mesmerizes the audience.
As Herr Schultz, Roger Lemelin is also excellent. His chemistry with Day-Hyde is perfect and their musical numbers together are atop the list of the show's highlights. Lemelin creates a character who is the cutest little old man you ever met but also a real and believable person. This is the only production of Cabaret I can remember seeing where it really becomes the story of Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, rather than the story of Cliff and Sally.
In smaller roles, other cast members deliver first-rate performances. Brien Lang is great as Ludwig Ernst and the wonderful Rachel Dulude is terribly underutilized as Fraulein Kost. Dulude has fantastic comic delivery and a beautiful singing voice, it would be nice to see her in some lead roles, perhaps even playing Sally Bowles someday. There are also, of coruse, the Kit Kat Girls, who populate the stage at the club, singing and dancing along with Sally and the Emcee. All five of them are excellent, including Patrick Saunders, as the Kit Kat Guy-in-Drag, who fits in perfectly.
Having one of the Kit Kat Girls be a male actor in drag is a nice touch, deftly handled, but it's just a sign of what might have been. There's nothing else daring or unique or exciting about this production. Sylvi Re's costume designs are just fine, but there's nothing particularly sexy or exciting. Dan Fisher's lighting and Katryne Hecht's set do the job they need to do but don't bring anything special to the table. In a number of aspects there's just something off about the production, something even amateurish about it, which is surpising considering all of the impressive professional talent involved.
Cabaret runs through June 7th with performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm. The Wilbury Group is located at 393 Broad Street in Providence and tickets are available through their website at www.thewilburygroup.org.
Pictured: Katie Travers as Sally Bowles. Photo by Brian Gagnon.