BWW Review: CABARET at Ivoryton Playhouse
The Ivoryton Playhouse's current production of Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret" does justice to the musical in its own unique way. It is by no means a slavish replica of Sam Mendes's 1998 revision that stressed the decadence to a significantly risqué degree. Nor does it reflect the more conventionality of the 1968 original that still managed to shock audiences with its more subtle but piquant references to the rise of the Nazi party in 1930's Berlin and a huge on-stage mirror that placed the audience as observers and participants in the fall of the German culture.
Todd Underwood's meticulous production manages to serve as more of a hybrid, in part because of the understandable difficulty of finding an all-female orchestra to cavort in costume on stage as members of the Kit Kat Club band and resulting necessity to place its black-clad all-male musicians at the rear of the stage. The proscenium stage is also a bit too high to be as intimate as the Mendes revival in which a thrust stage was surrounded by actual café tables where the audience sat, although Underwood, who also serves as choreographer, manages to place some of the action in the aisles leading to the stage and at the exits leading into the wings.
This production employs the script and music of the '98 revival, which incorporates many of Kander & Ebb's tunes that were created for Bob Fosse's movie version and makes more direct the overhanging threat of the Holocaust. The most notable change that Underwood has undertaken is to make Sam Given's performance as the Master of Ceremonies a calmer yet more conspiratorial presence. Yes, Given's Emcee is heavily made up, but appears more often in impeccable drag rather than in the worn, suggestive outfits that marked Alan Cummings' appearance in 1998 or even in the heavily rouged, pursed-lips style of Joel Grey in the original and in the film.
As a result, Given becomes more of a low-rent mother earth figure as the show progresses, being the glue that binds together the performers of the Club against the frequently brutal leadership of the Club's manager. And he does fill out Kate Bunce's costumes quite well, especially a few dresses and gowns toward the end of the evening. Of course, Given does have a previously revealed drag alter ego, Millie Grams, known to some regulars in the Ivoryton audience. He handles his hosting duties with absolute aplomb, whether it be merrily dancing with a gorilla in the nastily racist "If You Could See Her," with a pair of potential bedmates in "Two Ladies," or in the haunting "I Don't Care Much" underlining many German's unwillingness or inability to see what has been happening.
The diminutive Katie Mack makes for a delightful Sally Bowles, the rather undistinguished headliner of the Club. Mack's Sally is a genuine lost soul, finding solace and friendships among her fellow denizens of the club while embracing the sex and drugs that make the scene so appealing to her efforts to brush off her past and find some meaning in her perhaps misplaced dreams. She has an excellent voice to match her interpretation of Sally, especially on such familiar numbers as "Don't Tell Mama," "Maybe This Time" and of course the title tune.
Underwood stages the production with limited scenery, cleverly designed by Daniel Nischan to sufficiently hint at the plot's various locations, relying equally on Marcus Abbott's lighting design which contributes deliberately uncomfortable exclamation points as the story builds. Unfortunately the set is populated with lots of tables, chairs and props which often prolong the flow between scenes and numbers as cast members must scurry out and exchange round tables for square tables and eliminate occasionally sizable numbers of chairs, even though such moves seem to have been obviously choreographed. With the band placed on platforms in the rear, a few scenes are performed in the midst of this elevated area, while most are pushed forward toward the front of the stage, allowing Underwood to stage a variety of dances that capture the flavor of the times.
Andy Tighe plays the American writer Clifford Bradshaw, the Christopher Isherwood surrogate in the author's original "Berlin Stories" who is intended to serve as the audience's guide through pre-World War II Berlin. He captures his character's naivety and confusion quite adequately, conveying his hesitation to fully embrace the free-wheeling multiple partnered sexual opportunities he has encountered in both Paris and Berlin. He manages, however, to be a little too histrionic in his increasing frustrations with girlfriend Sally's unwillingness to depart Berlin with him as it becomes apparent that the social situation is gradually deteriorating.
Carolyn Popp and John Little are both charming and devastating as respectively, Clifford's elderly landlady, Fraulein Schneider, and Herr Schulz, a local Jewish greengrocer, whose background proves deadly both to his business and to his relationship with Schneider. They share the tender duet "It Couldn't Please Me More (Pineapple)" while Popp is particularly touching on "What Would You Do," her tragic renunciation of her possible marriage to Herr Schulz.
Music Director Michel Morris gets a strong, enveloping sound out of his 8-member band, showcasing John Kander's rich score and the ensemble delivers Fred Ebb's creative and on-target lyrics with clarity. A dialect coach has helped with the accents to enhance the atmosphere of being in Berlin, certainly accomplished for a steadily discomfiting descent into the waning days of Weimar Germany and the dawn of the Nazi era.
For tickets and information, contact the Ivoryton Playhouse at 860.767.7319 or visit www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.