BWW Review: CABARET: Goosebumps and Goose-steps

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Book by Joe Masteroff, Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood; Directed by BT McNicholl, Originally Directed by Sam Mendes, Originally Co-Directed and Choreographed by Rob Marshall, Associate Choreographer & Choreography Recreated by Cynthia Onrubia; Musical Supervisor/Vocal Arrangements, Patrick Vaccariello; Musical Director/Conductor/Piano, Robert Cookman; Set Design, Robert Brill; Costume Design, William Ivey Long; Lighting Design, Peggy Eisenhower, Mike Baldassari; Sound Design, Keith Caggiano (based on the original Broadway design by Brian Ronan); Orchestrations, Michael Gibson; Dance & Incidental Music, David Krane; Hair & Wig Design, Paul Huntley

CAST: Randy Harrison, Andrea Goss (1/31-2/5), Leigh Ann Larkin (2/7-2/12), Benjamin Eakeley, Alison Ewing, Mary Gordon Murray, Scott Robertson, Patrick Vaill, Kelsey Beckert, Sarah Bishop, Chelsey Clark, Jenna Zito Clark (2/7-2/12), Ryan DeNardo, Lori Eure, Kendal Hartse, Andrew Hubacher, Joey Khoury, Chris Kotera, Tommy McDowell, Samantha Shafer (1/31-2/5), Laura Sheehy, Steven Wenslawski

Performances through February 12 as part of the Lexus Broadway In Boston Season at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 800-982-2787 or

Roundabout Theatre Company's national tour of its award-winning Cabaret revival transforms the Boston Opera House into the infamous Kit Kat Klub of Berlin and encourages you to leave your troubles outside. If you're finding life a little disappointing these days, heed the words of the Emcee as he tells you, "We have no troubles here! Here life is beautiful...The girls are beautiful...Even the orchestra is beautiful!" Beauty being in the eye of the beholder, you can judge for yourself whether or not those statements are true, but there is nothing alternative about the fact that Roundabout and Broadway In Boston have brought a stunning production to Washington Street that stands out in high relief to the theatrics playing in the city that shares its name.

Returning to its roots (the original 1966 pre-Broadway production tried out in Boston), Cabaret still packs a punch more than fifty years later. Set in Weimar-era Germany, as 1929 rolls into 1930 and the Nazis are insinuating their way into power, the creators (Joe Masteroff - book, John Kander - music, Fred Ebb - lyrics) crafted a blend of two themes, one personal and one political, that are equally compelling. On the one hand, there is the romance born of need and lust between British club singer Sally Bowles (Andrea Goss) and American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Benjamin Eakeley), and a secondary "December" affair between Cliff's landlady Fraulein Schneider (Mary Gordon Murray) and Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schultz (Scott Robertson). These relationships bob in the sea of an evolving political climate which is illustrated metaphorically, with the depravity inside the Kit Kat Klub mirroring the creeping changes outside and the Emcee (Randy Harrison), manifesting the national id, acting as guide, commentator, and collaborator.

Masteroff's book, based on the play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood, delivers interesting and diverse characters. Sally is very young, but has a lot of miles on her. She has a talent for survival and compartmentalizing. When Cliff takes her in, against his better judgment, it frees him to experience all aspects of his personality, as well as to drink deeply from all that Berlin has to offer. Although they are both troubled souls, theirs is a symbiotic relationship that works, until it doesn't. Their mutual friend Ernst Ludwig (Patrick Vaill) is an enigmatic presence who helps them financially, but he has an ominous quality that eventually exerts its will, shaking others around him into discomforting wakefulness.

Among the eight 1967 Tony Awards (out of eleven nominations) won by Cabaret were Best Musical, and Best Original Score for Kander and Ebb. In addition to the well-known title song, most musical theatre aficionados will recognize "Don't Tell Mama," "Maybe This Time," and "Money." However, the songs that really hit it out of the park are those that help to define a character - Sally's defiant "Mein Herr" or Fraulein Schneider's "What Would You Do?" - and the chilling "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" which sets the tone for the new world order. Musical Director/Conductor Robert Cookman and the musicians of the Kit Kat Band (who double as actors in the ensemble) are seated on the upper tier of the set and seamlessly move in and out of the dramatic action.

Harrison's performance is commanding from the moment he enters the spotlight to the beat of the familiar vamp ("Willkommen"), inviting us with a crook of his finger and a leer to enter the dangerous world where you wouldn't want your mother to know you've been. Drawing on strong vocals and a genuine connection with the audience, he makes the character his own without reference to the previous famous occupants of the rolE. Harrison is an alchemist, shifting from liquid to solid to gas in the many-faceted persona of the Emcee. Sometimes he seems to be absent from a scene when you'll suddenly feel his aura and notice him loitering on the spiral staircase or in an upstage shadow, but he is never any further removed than the back of your mind. He is, in a word, mesmerizing.

Goss is a powerhouse as Bowles, capturing her devil-may-care attitude that covers for her insecurity, as well as the core of fear and hurt that defines her. Her slight frame belies the big voice that bursts forth in "Mein Herr," but sends wave upon wave of heartbreak when she sings hopefully in "Maybe This Time." By the time she gets to the 11 o'clock number ("Cabaret"), Goss channels everything that Sally has been through and everything that she knows is coming into that musical mission statement. (Note: Leigh Ann Larkin takes over the role on 2/7 through the remainder of the tour.)

The story is told from the perspective of writer Bradshaw, and Eakeley is effective as the kid in the Berlin candy store, having his eyes opened to the ways of this dark world. In the Roundabout version, Cliff's bisexuality is openly displayed, but without judgment, and Eakeley moves easily between his character's two sides. In his one song with Sally ("Perfectly Marvelous"), he displays playfulness along with a lovely voice. He also provides a solid contrast with Vaill's fascist Ludwig as a nice Guy Standing on the right side of history.

Although their relationship is the undercard, Murray and Robertson manage to steal hearts and a lot of scenes. Perhaps it is the everyman nature of their characters, but they are relatable in the extreme. Fraulein Schneider is a survivor who accepts what life brings, while Herr Schultz is a believer in positivity and goodness. (Guess which one of them comes out okay in the end.) However, these two actors turn these characters into touchstones for the message in this production with the force of their voices and the authenticity of their performances. Despite all that they have endured (and whatever the future holds), Schneider and Schultz are the eternal light of hope in the approaching darkness.

The North American tour features most of the creative team from the Roundabout Theatre Company's 2014 revival, with Director BT McNicholl building on the original direction of Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, Marshall's choreography recreated by Cynthia Onrubia, musical supervision/vocal arrangements by Patrick Vaccariello, set design by Robert Brill, costume design by William Ivey Long, lighting design by Peggy Eisenhower and Mike Baldassari, and Keith Caggiano's sound design based on the original Broadway design by Brian Ronan. Roundabout's first revival of Cabaret opened on Broadway on March 19, 1998, starring Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson. It won four Tony Awards and played for six years. A decade later, Cumming reprised his role at Studio 54 in a run that lasted just over a year. The tour began in January, 2016, in Providence, Rhode Island, and will conclude this summer. The final stop is in Washington, DC. Poetic, dontcha think?

Photo credit: Joan Marcus (Andrea Goss, Randy Harrison, The Kit Kat Girls)

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From This Author Nancy Grossman