BWW Review: Moonbox Productions' CABARET Sizzles and Dazzles
Book by Joe Masteroff, Based on the play by John Van Druten and Stories by Christopher Isherwood, Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Originally Co-directed and Choreographed by Rob Marshall and Directed by Sam Mendes; Producer, Sharman Altshuler; Director/Choreographer, Rachel Bertone; Music Director, Dan Rodriguez; Stage Manager, Nicky Carbone; Set Design, Janie E. Howland; Lighting Design, Sam Biondolillo; Costume Design, Marian Bertone; Sound Design, David Wilson; Properties Master, Lauren Corceura; Fight Choreographer, J. T. Turner; Dialect Coach, Daniel Thomas Blackwell; ASL Coach, Patrick McCarthy
CAST (in order of appearance): Phil Tayler, Katrina Pavao, Caroline Workman, Tracy Sokat, Joy Clark, Kimberly Fife, Brad Foster Reinking, David Alea, Brian-Barry Pereira, Aimee Doherty, Jared Troilo, Dan Prior, Maryann Zschau, Ray O'Hare, Daniel Forest Sullivan, Ben Choi-Harris; MUSICIANS: Dan Rodriguez, Jeff Leonard, Josh Gilbert, Katie Daugherty, Tom Young, J. Kathleen Castellanos, Rusty Chandler, Zack Hardy
Performances through April 29 by Moonbox Productions at the Wimberly Theater, Boston Center for the Arts Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.bostontheatrescene.com, www.moonbox.org
Cabaret has stood the test of time and is arguably one of the best musicals in the canon of the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb. The original Broadway production opened on November 20, 1966, ran for 1,165 performances, and took home eight 1967 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. There have been three Broadway revivals, five productions in London, and numerous other international productions. Boston was visited by the National Tour in 2016, and, under the inventive direction of McCaela Donovan, the Boston University School of Theatre staged the show in December, 2017, magically transforming a space in the College of Fine Arts building, once an old Buick dealership, into the seedy Kit Kat Klub.
I saw both of those two recent versions, as well as earlier productions at New Repertory Theatre and American Repertory Theater, all of which were distinct and had merit. As they recede into my rearview mirror, along comes the hottest, the brightest, the high-intensity-xenon-light of an 18-wheeler barreling toward your windshield on an undivided highway, Moonbox Productions' Cabaret. Having moved up in class from the intimate Plaza Theatre to the larger Wimberly Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts, Moonbox (in its sixth season) proves that it is more than ready for prime time, especially with wunderkind director/choreographer Rachel Bertone (Barnum, The Wild Party) once again calling the shots, alongside maestro Dan Rodriguez wielding the baton as music director.
Every aspect of Bertone's vision is on target, starting with the world of the play crafted by her team of designers. Janie E. Howland (set) notably makes use of angled sections of wall with lines askew, an off-kilter marquee bearing the Klub's name, and a pair of chandeliers hanging akimbo, to reflect a world going haywire. A staircase climbs from the stage floor to an upper tier atop three curtained arches and cordoned by a decorative metal rail, and minimal furnishings for additional locales are carried on and off by the ensemble as scenes change. Samuel J. Biondolillo (lighting) creates the seamy environs of the Kit Kat Klub, shines the spotlight on individual performers, and directs our focus to sections of the stage as they come into play. As for the extraordinary costume design, it's a wonderful artistic choice, not nepotism, when Marian Bertone just happens to be the director's mother. David Wilson (sound) effectively balances the vocals and the onstage musicians, and provides evocative sound effects such as the scratch of a record playing on a victrola, smashing glass, and wailing sirens.
With the foundation in place, Bertone brings on the outstanding cast of triple-threat performers, with headliners Phil Tayler (Emcee), Aimee Doherty (Sally Bowles), and Jared Troilo (Clifford Bradshaw). Charged with setting the tone, Tayler's emcee is slyly seductive and can be alternately an entertaining burlesque performer, a torch singer, or coldly menacing. He commands the stage like the ring master of these proceedings, mixing in well with the Kit Kat Girls and the Orchestra, or just looming in the background. Whether singing one of his goofy songs ("Two Ladies"), leading the ensemble in the decadent anthem to greed ("Money"), or breaking your heart ("I Don't Care Much"), Tayler's vocal versatility is on display.
Doherty was born to play Sally Bowles, and has done so several times (at New Rep and in community theater, undoubtedly as a juvenile). Her interpretation is informed by the experience of playing the character before, but enriched by Doherty's maturity and additional stage experience in the ensuing years. Sally is a multi-faceted party girl, totally self-involved and lacking empathy, and Doherty portrays her as sassy and confident one minute ("Don't Tell Mama"), dangerously seductive the next ("Mein Herr"), and deceptively sweet ("Perfectly Marvelous"), one song after another. Sally is not an especially likable character, but Doherty forces us to consider what is behind the mask in a stunning and moving rendition of "Maybe This Time." Here's a tip to truly appreciate the performance - watch her eyes. At the start and at the end of the song, she is a waif hoping for the impossible, but in the middle she is drawn into the spotlight and is switched "ON." Never mind the booze, never mind the cocaine, never mind the men; the microphone, the spotlight, and the adulation of the crowd are her drugs of choice.
Although Doherty's magnetic attraction keeps us transfixed, Troilo holds his own to give us a feeling of what Cliff is about, especially in his scenes with Ernst Ludwig (Dan Prior), the menacing face of the Nazi insurgence, and his landlady Fräulein Schneider (Maryann Zschau). Prior does a good job of starting out as a nice guy, befriending Cliff, before he shows his true colors and his Nazi armband. Zschau's portrayal of Schneider is a little softer and more down to earth than others I've seen play the role, resulting in her being both more sympathetic and representative of the quandary of the average German citizen. The romance between Schneider and Herr Schultz (Ray O'Hare, an adorable mensch) is highlighted as something very sweet and very good, against a backdrop of depravity and evil. Joy Clark stands out as Fräulein Kost, a prostitute who rents a room in the house, and doubles as one of the Kit Kat Girls.
The rest of the ensemble, playing Kit Kat Girls and Boys, are incredible dancers who show off Bertone's choreography, and inject the play with their sultry, steamy movements and expressions. Daniel Forest Sullivan doubles as Max, the club owner, and handles the duties of Dance Captain for this talented and tireless crew: Katrina Pavao (Rosie/Gorilla), Caroline Workman (Lulu), Tracy Sokat (Texas), Kimberly Fife (Helga), Brad Foster Reinking (Bobby), David Alea (Victor/Rudy), Brian-Berry Pereira (Herman/Officer).
How is it possible that a musical set during the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany, and that is more than fifty years old, has lost none of its relevance or urgency? Credit is certainly due book writer Joe Masteroff and the brilliant team of Kander and Ebb, but the Moonbox production puts a time stamp on Cabaret that brings it into the here and now. Across the board, and from top to bottom, the company tackles the challenging mission of telling the compelling story with clarity and honesty, while entertaining with a lineup of dazzling performances designed to make us feel good. Come to this Cabaret, old chum!
[Note: performances with ASL Interpretation (April 20, 8 pm) and Audio Description (April 28, 2 & 8 pm)]
Photo credit: Sharman Altshuler (Aimee Doherty)