BWW Reviews: Keegan Does Justice to Kander and Ebb's CABARET
If there's one thing Keegan Theatre usually does well, it is delivering quality renditions of known and lesser-known musicals. The small yet ambitious company's current production of Cabaret, with solid direction by Christina A. Coakley and Michael Innocenti, is certainly no exception. Even though Cabaret is of the 'tried and true' variety of musical theatre and could have, therefore, resulted in yet another ho-hum production, Keegan's intimate setting, attention to detail, and mostly strong casting among the leads make this production ultimately memorable and, at times, even a bit daring.
Using Christopher Isherwood's stories and John Van Druten's play as source material, Cabaret (with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Joe Masterhoff) received a Broadway premiere in 1966. The production eventually spawned a 1972 Hollywood movie featuring Liza Minnelli, and more than a few revivals in both the United States and Europe - some of which offered unique takes on the material, replaced songs etc. In essence, rarely have two productions been the same.
Keegan's production, based off of the 1998 Broadway Revival, is no exception. Still primarily set at Berlin's seedy Kit Kat Club in Weimar Republic-era Germany, it examines how the social and political upheaval in the country with the rise of the Nazi Party is influencing everyday life and shaping the form of entertainment provided at the Club using both real-life stories and imagined situations involving a set of mostly eccentric characters. Keegan has chosen to play up some of the darker, subversive elements of the script, particularly with regard to the Emcee - the master of ceremonies at the Club and an omnipresent commentator of sorts on the social and political changes in the country. This Emcee is powerful, deviant, and fearless and in a change from other productions, quite dominant and strong. Ultimately these choices are good ones as the Emcee can be used to show the true danger of the rise of ethnic-based socialist politics - even the most fearless, strong people are affected. That being said, the final scene - though consistent with this theme and quite heart-wrenching - is a bit too obvious in reminding audiences of the impending Holocaust.
Performance-wise, this production offers a mixed bag. While it has never been necessary for Kander and Ebb's classic score to be sung by 'singer-singers' for it to work if past productions are any indication, at times the singing from two cast members can be quite painful to the ears. From an acting standpoint, Jane Petofsky (Fraulein Schneider) is mostly successful in the dialogue-driven scenes as the older woman who runs a boarding house frequented by Club members (and, central to the plot, an American writer Clifford Bradshaw) and finds herself directly impacted by ever-growing ethnic tensions in her local community. However, when we are initially introduced to her plight through the song "So What?," we are treated to some quite off-pitch singing which can take us out of the moment. With the poor singing and unfortunately also flat emotion, it can become difficult to focus on the lyrics of the song - necessary elements to make us care about the character for the rest of the play. That being said, her emotional connection to her character's plight does improve as the play goes on. As Herr Schultz (Schneider's lover who is also at the center of the ethnic turmoil) Stan Shulman's singing voice is also less than stellar, but he's more consistent at playing up those elements of his character that make us ultimately care about how he ends up. He's endearing to the point where the singing does not matter.
Several other cast members have the opposite problem - they sing the roles well, but ultimately deliver flat acting performances. Most notable among these is Bradley Foster Smith as Clifford Bradshaw. A crucial part of the story, he ultimately proves unmemorable and is unconvincing as both Sally Bowles' love interest and as an American aghast by the political and social changes in Germany. He delivers a performance that's not quite terrible, but not quite committed either - especially when the others around him fully commit to their characters. As Fraulein Kost, Sarah Lasko delivers a beautifully powerful rendition of the eerie Act 1 closer "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," but has more difficultly playing up her instigator role in the book scenes. An inconsistent accent in those book scenes does not help her cause either.
The rest of the cast fares exceedingly better with both the singing and offering nuanced and fully committed acting performances. The ensemble roles of Kit Kat Club boys and girls often fade into the background and don't make an emotional impact in Cabaret other than to provide ambience for the seedy, sexually-charged club. In this case all do well to not only sing and dance quite capably, but create emotional journeys for their characters. In addition, two leads deserve specific mention - Paul Scanlan and Maria Rizzo. Both offer creative takes on their roles that are particularly inspiring and make this production one that must be seen.
Paul Scanlan is definitely charismatic enough to pull off the crucial role of the Emcee and his strong singing is equally matched by impeccable lyric interpretation and strong chemistry with everyone sharing his scenes. His "I Don't Care Much," which was not included in the original Broadway production but put back in to the show with subsequent productions, is quite possibly one of the best versions I've heard. Heart-breaking, thoughtful, wistful - it's pretty much perfect.
Maria Rizzo's Sally Bowles is zany, playfully eccentric, and hyper; she exudes charisma and is able to display a range of purposeful emotions at the drop of a hat without seeming too calculating. Although this role does not always require a strong singer to make it work, Rizzo's strong voice makes an already strong performance even stronger. I don't think I've ever seen a Sally Bowles in a local production commit to the role quite like Ms. Rizzo who puts every ounce of her being into the character. I won't give away the details, but her performance of the title song "Cabaret" is stunningly raw and in an odd way, beautiful. She also exhibits a lighter, hopeful side with strong performance of "Don't Tell Mama" and "Perfectly Marvelous."
Cabaret does not require extensive, flashy production elements. In fact, in some cases (as seen in a previous local production of the play), the addition of these things can detract attention from the compelling story. Luckily Coakley and Innocenti resist the temptation to make the production too splashy. Michael Innocenti's set and lighting design takes the best elements of the cozy and run-down Church Street Theater and makes it work so that the venue is transformed into the Kit Kat Club. With minimal scenery, we're immediately transported to the iconic club with assistance from Shadia Hafiz's costume design, which plays up the subversive nature of the club performers while those around them are hanging on to tradition and order, and Jake Null's sound design.
Strong choreography (Rachel Leigh Dolan) and music direction (John Michael d'Haviland) also contribute well to the success of the production. The seven piece orchestra delivers a fine professional and precise performance of Kander's music although at times it does lack energy. Even so, that's just a quibble.
In sum, this production rises to the challenge in nearly every way. It's one to be seen.
Running Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes including an intermission.
Cabaret is currently playing at the Church Street Theater - 1742 Church Street, NW in Washington, DC. Ithas been extended through March 2, 2013 due to ticket demand. Many performances are sold-out. When available, tickets can be purchased online.
Photo Credit: C. Stanley Photography (Maria Rizzo pictured).