BWW Reviews: Reinvented CABARET Sizzles at Crown
Cabaret/book by Joe Masteroff,/based on the play by John Van Druten and the stories of Christopher Isherwood/music by John Kander; lyrics by Fred Ebb/directed by Gary Lamb/choreography by Lisaun Whittingham/Crown City Theatre/through: end of 2014
Perhaps Kander and Ebb's best musical, apart from Chicago, Cabaret has it all: a fine book, deliciously diverse characters, dynamite music and a subtext that will not quit. The subtext being: either compromise or get out if you value your life, the latter, to be sure, the wiser. This is Berlin, circa 1930, before Hitler, but just as Nazi pressure hits the fan. Crown City Theatre's new revival production, with a small ensemble of 11, has a completely new look with slick direction from Gary Lamb.
Whereas the 1972 Bob Fosse film was more tailor-made for Liza Minnelli's star power, one realizes upon revisiting the play that it is definitely more of an ensemble piece with the urgent participation of every single chorus member. After all they populate the Kit Kat Klub, lending it an uncannily vibrant as well as somber diversity. Following closely in this vein are the leading players Sally Bowles (Shayna Gabrielle) and Cliff Bradshaw (Phillip Pruitt), whose character is based on writer Christopher Isherwood. Like day and night, they also set the tone for the entire show. MC (Eric Sand) plays a number of tricky disguises; like a chameleon, he's in and out deviously, prodding and pushing, and playing... both sides, keeping us guessing. Then there are those unquestionably trapped like Frau Schneider (Sara J. Stuckey) and Herr Schultz (John Ross Clark), who cannot express their love for one another without paying the price. The question of homosexuality, which had hovered with a couple of chorus members making a play for the bisexual Bradshaw in the original 60s production, changed drastically in the 87 production, upon which this is based. Cliff confesses his homosexuality openly here, but the tragedy of the gay issue in Nazi Germany is explored much more fully and deeply in Martin Sherman's play Bent.
Lamb puts a new perspective on the piece by setting it entirely in the cabaret environment. It has a faster pace, especially in Act I and a more frivolous feel up until the end of Act I where Nazi violence starts to seep in and take control. The backdrop here with a deliciously enlarged evocative sketch of voluptuous girls by Joanne McGee is eye-catching. The screen above is well-utilized for announcements of scenes, song titles and pictures/film of Adolph Hitler and the lurking Nazi take over. All the costumes by Tanya Apuya are 'divinely decadent' to quote Sally Bowles.
The acting is tip top, with Gabrielle a steller Sally. From "Don't Tell Mama" to "Cabaret" she is flirtatious, semi-sophisticated and elusive, all adding up to the definitive tragic heroine. Pruitt is vulnerable and earnest as Bradshaw. Sand brings every ounce of his talent to the fore, proving him to be a true triple threat. His height and posturing add greatly to the MC's ambiguity. Stuckey makes a sturdy Frau Schneider, so in tune with the woman's emotional longings but resigned to pushing them aside. Also of note is Clark, who brings a natural gentlemanly quality to Herr Schultz. The entire ensemble is wonderful, with Lisaun Whittingham offering some sharp choreography and Bill Reilly, as always, terrific musical direction.
This Cabaret is hardly traditional. so those who expect to see it as it was first presented on Broadway will be disappointed. "It is Crown's mission to put a fresh perspective on musicals. Otherwise, why remount them?" insists Bill Reilly. Lamb has made the piece work nicely within the confines of the space, using aisles as exits, entrances and playing areas. and allowing the artists to connect with the audience as in a cabaret space. I loved his choices for different character combinations in musical numbers particularly pairing Sally and Frau Schneider in "Maybe This Time". It works beautifully - both women need love but lose. The position of the tune after "Cabaret" near the end is rather anti-climactic, though, as they look to a bleak future with only a glimmer of hope. But, one may argue that its placement may provide an ironic twist to the whole message, showing more optimism than usual at this pessimistic juncture.
Bravo to Crown for a job well done! This is a finely staged piece with a genuinely 'ensemble' texture to it ...and particularly great musical staging.